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Profit in misery: climate change and human trafficking

Image credit: Asian Development Bank (Flickr: Creative Commons)

When a natural disaster strikes, whether it comes in the form of a sudden impact like a tsunami or a crippling drought that lasts years, there are consequences that are both predictable and measurable. The destruction of homes and livelihoods, the mobilisation of emergency and aid services, forced displacement and migration; these can be anticipated and policies drafted to take both pre-emptive and reactive action to minimise harm.

Other consequences are more difficult to measure. The grief and anguish for lives lost, the despair stemming from homes being destroyed, from crops failing, from income being lost; the extent to which persons who survive those disasters are made vulnerable is difficult to assess. As noted by Sunil Banra of Save the Children India, rising sea levels threaten the the lives of villagers in the Sundarbans, a collection of heavily populated islands in the Ganges delta. It’s not just land and livelihoods that are eroded, but also ‘the social fabric of these communities’.

One of climate change’s consequences that’s proving difficult to quantify, but which demands more attention, is the relationship between climate change and increases in human trafficking.

Climate change and its impacts are rarely considered as a potential contributor to human trafficking in global discussions or national-level policy frameworks, according to a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). There’s an absence of academic research on the topic, but anecdotal evidence by field practitioners indicates that both sudden-onset disasters, like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and slow-onset events, like rising sea levels and coastal erosion, increase persons' vulnerability to human trafficking. That’s because of the consequent economic instability, and an inability to diversify income in their local areas.

The Asia-Pacific region is noted as being especially vulnerable to spikes in human trafficking, as not only is the region prone to both sudden-onset and slow-onset disasters, it’s also experiencing a rise in already high levels of migration.

In India’s West Bengal, extreme poverty has meant that survival has always been a struggle for people, and human traffickers have always been present to take advantage of people’s desperation to find paid work. However, when Cyclone Aila swept through the Sundarbans in 2009, displacing over a million people, the rate of trafficking in persons spiked. Families needed money to repair damages to homes and buy necessities like food after the ensuing floods, and out of desperation sent their children to work in factories in the cities. Some traffickers disguised as job scouts would organise travel to the cities with promises of paid work, with the reality being labour exploitation. Others arrive in the community and present themselves as young male suitors, promising marriage to their daughters and better lives in the city, only to later sell them into sex trafficking.

In Assam, girls are increasingly being trafficked for domestic and sexual exploitation. That’s also after having attempted to find paid work in other cities and being recruited unknowingly by human traffickers. Distraught parents search for them after it’s become clear their children have been misled. And whilst the police are able to rescue some, others never return home.

The IOM report notes that the first time the issue of human trafficking during natural disasters was brought into focus was after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when child protection organisations started to notice an increase in child abductions for ‘adoption’ in Indonesia. The report emphasises that in order to stop people from becoming more vulnerable to trafficking, there needs to be an acknowledgement that ‘human trafficking can be an unintended but direct consequence when migration occurs in the absence of government support and management, after disasters or in the face of slow-onset events’.

Beyond the IOM, only one other global actor has made a point of acknowledging and discussing the link between climate change and human trafficking. Pope Francis met with dozens of mayors from a variety of nations in 2015, with the aim of discussing the intersections between climate change, modern slavery and trafficking in persons.

While the Asia-Pacific may be particularly susceptible to trafficking due to the millions of migrants in the region, other regions of the world are predicted to see a rise in human trafficking as a result of environmental disasters. For migrants travelling through Central American countries like Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, human trafficking is a common risk. Female migrants in particular are regularly abducted and sold into sex trafficking and sex slavery by gangs and other organised crime groups. With research conducted by NASA indicating that impending droughts in Central America could cause a significant increase in migration, there’s reason to believe the number of migrants captured and trafficked would also increase.

The lack of literature on the relationship between climate change, increasing displacement of persons and human trafficking is something that the international community needs to address. Without greater understanding of how persons are being rendered especially vulnerable to traffickers, without more information on the ways and means through which traffickers in different regions are exploiting people’s economic insecurity, vulnerable people—particularly women and children—are going to keep slipping through the cracks and be potentially lost forever.

Georgia Collins-Jennings is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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