Pop-up Brothels and Airbnb: A Disturbing Human Trafficking Trend

By Marilyn Ardis

Airbnb is a popular online platform that allows property owners seeking to rent space to connect with potential guests. The company, valued at $31 billion in September of 2017, makes its money by charging service fees to the hosts and guests who use its rental booking site. This short-term rental service, popular with vacationers, boasts that two million people in 100,000 cities across the globe stay in Airbnb homes each night.

What is a pop-up brothel?

In recent years, the concept of “pop-up brothels” has been gaining popularity with those who proliferate the practice of prostitution. A pop-up brothel is one that operates at a particular property, usually residential, for a short period of time. Whether Airbnb likes it or not, it indirectly profits from this trend.

In May 2018, a report published for Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade explains that technology is changing the way prostitution is practiced. Organized crime groups use explicit websites and online bookings for hotels and short-term rental businesses to increase their profits, using oftentimes vulnerable women by moving them through various pop-up brothels. As indicated in the report, a large number of women engaged in prostitution at these brothels are victims of human trafficking. Lured with promises of legitimate work or otherwise coerced into compliance, these women can quickly be moved from one location to another, making it difficult for law enforcement to locate and save them.

Fighting this disturbing trend

To its credit, Airbnb has made efforts to end the use of its property listings for criminal purposes. The company reviews each guest and host against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watchlists. Hosts and guests within the United States are also subject to background checks.

On February 19, 2018, the company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that it would invest in new technology intended to disrupt modern slavery, specifically related to the use of its properties as pop-up brothels. To further this endeavor, Airbnb has partnered with the anti-trafficking charity Polaris to train their employees and develop new programs with the hope of preventing people from being trafficked.

On September 22, 2019, Airbnb launched a new online portal for law enforcement to provide a “secure and streamlined channel for law enforcement to submit valid legal requests for information from Airbnb.” This portal allows law enforcement to track their requests and receive status updates.

We applaud Airbnb’s recent efforts to cooperate with law enforcement and their partnership with Polaris, but in spite of these efforts, Airbnb continues to profit from the pop-up brothel practice. It’s difficult to monitor each individual property, but it is our hope that as awareness spreads about modern human trafficking, we will continue to innovate as we come up with solutions.

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