Human trafficking in the Middle East and North Africa fell by 40 per cent in 2020, a UN report said on Tuesday.
Globally, the number of detected trafficking victims declined by 11 per cent in the same year, for which the most recent data is available in most countries.
"In 2020, for the first time, the number of victims detected globally decreased," the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its latest report, adding that the biggest drops were reported in low and middle-income countries, particularly in South and Central America but also sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific region.
Experts who contributed to the report said the decline in human-trafficking victims, which they said was the first in 20 years, was due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Worldwide policing was also reduced but the Ukraine war has likely sparked a new surge, the report said.
Marcelo Colombo, head prosecutor in Argentina for trafficking cases, said the effect of the pandemic led to a decrease in sexual exploitation but those under lockdown such as women and girls were subjected to other, such new types of manipulation online. Mr Colombo said closed and confined spaces made it harder to locate victims but his department was learning how to deal with assisting them over the internet.
The report's research is "very important to prevent, identify and prosecute human-trafficking cases worldwide”, Mr Colombo said.
Trafficking for sexual exploitation featured the steepest drop of 24 per cent, the report said.
However, the UNODC said: "Sexual exploitation may have reduced due to the [pandemic-related] closure of public spaces and it may have also been pushed into less visible and less safe locations, making this form of trafficking more concealed and harder to be detected."
War plays a big role in increasing trafficking and conflict in Africa and the Middle East affected the numbers.
Most of the victims in areas of conflict were either originally from or were moved into countries in the Mena region, said the report.
The war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a similar situation, it added.
"The refugee emergency in Ukraine is elevating risks of trafficking for the Ukrainian displaced population. The 2014 conflict in Ukraine quadrupled the number of Ukrainian victims detected in Western Europe in 2016," the report said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
It expects an even larger number of trafficking victims following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, the report added.