In 2020, South Carolina authorities faced a tough year in their fight against human trafficking as they were beset by COVID-19 challenges.
The S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force released its annual report Monday. The report notes the difficulty the state task force and its regional counterparts faced in developing training and preventive measures, as well as providing shelter and other assistance to victims, during the pandemic.
The report also indicates a fear that human trafficking, both for sex and labor, could be on the rise as more people face economic hardship. The state already lacks the needed amount of shelter space for such victims, and an increase could easily overwhelm the strained resources already in place.
"While human trafficking can happen to anyone, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified a harsh reality: Those who already face physical, emotional, economic, social, or other vulnerabilities may face more routes to human trafficking victimization," the report said.
In an effort to adapt, task forces developed online training and a bilingual online resource library. But the need for resources and funding appeared to outgrow the supply, with several 2019 objectives unmet, according to the annual report.
The report listed five counties that saw the most recorded activity of human trafficking in 2020: Horry, Charleston, Greenville, Richland and Anderson, in that order. Dorchester County dropped out of the top five last year, Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a prepared statement.
The state reported 139 cases of human trafficking in 2020's roundup. Many cases are never reported.
Human traffickers typically target the state's most vulnerable populations, taking advantage of people who may be desperate for basic economic needs. Even before the pandemic, South Carolina had one of the worst poverty rates in the nation, with an estimated 13.8 percent of residents living in poverty in 2019 — and therefore much more vulnerable to exploitation.
With unemployment and housing instability on the rise during the pandemic, more people could find themselves targeted by traffickers.
Homeless individuals are also especially vulnerable to trafficking, particularly runaway youths, along with members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants and the disabled, the report says. Those with a history of abuse or domestic violence, children in foster care, and people dealing with addiction are also more likely to be targeted.
Most reported victims are women, and people of color are disproportionately affected, the report says.
In addition to material needs, traffickers also prey on emotional needs. They exploit vulnerable people with low self-esteem and a "deep desire for belonging," according to the report.
The 2020 data released in the report shows that 61.7 percent of traffickers were victims' employers, and many used fake job offers or advertisements. About 13 percent of victims were exploited by intimate partners, with about 11 percent taken advantage of by family members.
In the report, task force members acknowledge that the obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic will still plague them in 2021.
"As the pandemic worsens, it continues to wreak havoc across economies, health care systems, schools, and communities statewide. Such widespread disruption breeds vulnerability to human trafficking and exacerbates existing economic, social, and racial inequalities that can lead to victimization," the report says.