Climate Crisis = Human Crisis: At the Crossroads of Climate Change and Human Trafficking

Climate Crisis = Human Crisis: At the Crossroads of Climate Change and Human Trafficking

Climate Crisis = Human Crisis: At the Crossroads of Climate Change and Human Trafficking

By: Rebekah Enoch: Program Director, Human Trafficking Search

In 2008, with climate change becoming a growing global concern, I began working with the Earth Hour Global team in Sydney, Australia.  There was a lot of optimism on the subject of climate change, Obama had just been elected, it felt like the world was changing for the better and real change was possible. Alongside many other organizations, we worked hard in the lead up to Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in 2009 to try and draw attention to how the world would be impacted if the global community failed to act. By leveraging the collective voice of many grassroots movements, we hoped to convince world leaders that the time to act was now and push for policy changes that would protect people and the planet from catastrophic changes to our environment.

Now, almost 15 years later and with many failed COP meetings behind us, we see on an almost daily basis the results of the failure to act. Increases in extreme weather events including hurricanes, floods, wildfires, crop failures, and water scarcity. The rise of desertification of previously fertile farmland is leaving whole swaths of the world without an income or food source. The drying up of wells and water sources are leaving livestock, wildlife and rural or remote communities without access to reliable, safe drinking water. These events are also contributing to an increase in political instability as governments struggle to cope with populations which have lost access to fundamental resources and migrate to other areas or even other countries in an effort to survive. This is where the subject of human trafficking and modern slavery enter the narrative. 

Many of the outcomes that we shouted about in 2008 have come to pass and conversations about climate change need to reflect the issue as not just an environmental crisis, but a human crisis happening right now. When there are time projections for whole countries, like Tuvalu, the Maldives and Kiribati, being swallowed by the ocean due to sea level rise, the term climate refugee comes into sharp focus. According to Refugee International, there are already tens of millions of people across the globe who have left their homes due to climate change related issues, usually from the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. They leave to try and find a place where they can have enough food to eat, water to drink and a sustainable source of income simply in order to not die. This kind of forced migration is has become known as distress migration

Distress migration leaves people especially vulnerable to being trafficked, particularly women and children, as limited resources are used up, the support of family and community has been removed, and morale is depleted. Desperate people are lured into labor trafficking and exploitation, sometimes with the false promise of a job, sometimes by force. UNICEF found that for girls in particular, climate change severely increased the risk of modern slavery. “Girls are at increased risk of violence and exploitation, including sexual and physical abuse, and trafficking during and after extreme weather events. These risks are heightened when collecting food, water and firewood or when staying in temporary shelters or refugee camps. In addition, when a family is faced with economic hardship caused by climate change, studies suggest that the risk of child marriage can increase”. But the linkages between climate change and human trafficking are being mostly ignored by policy makers and thought leaders in their the global response to the climate crisis. A recent report from the International Institute for Environment and Development titled Climate Change, Migration and Vulnerability to Trafficking stated that “Despite glaring examples, policymakers have rarely considered climate change as a driver of human trafficking. The topic is also rarely discussed at the national and state levels.”

On page 11 of this same report, three key aspects of the gap in our knowledge of this growing crisis are cited:

  • The lack of understanding about the underlying drivers that push disadvantaged communities into situations that amplify vulnerability to trafficking. 
  • The need to know more about factors that increase the pull towards risky migration pathways that lead to exploitative work situations.
  • The need to understand gaps in social protection during a climate crisis that expose poor households to trafficking. 

If we strive to gain a better understanding of these points, the data will provide insights into how to strengthen much needed social protection for climate refugees and go towards creating effective anti-trafficking efforts. 

The word refugee does come with a set of protections and rights, but international law under the 1951 Refugee Convention only covers those fleeing war and persecution, and even then the bar to prove those conditions is quite high. That means those who are climate refugees or distress migrants are not currently offered support or protection under international law. In an effort to support gathering data, contribute to increased understanding and help address some of those knowledge gaps, HTS has created a page dedicated to climate change as one of our ongoing focus areas. This page will be a regularly updated space for reports, articles and webinars on the intersection of climate change and human trafficking for anyone who wants to know more about this issue. 

Starting with Earth Hour Global in 2008, to my current role as Program Director for Human Trafficking Search, the conversations I am having about the challenges of meeting basic human rights on the global stage have had the thread of climate change running throughout. Smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa shared deeply personal narratives of communities losing their livelihoods due to sea level rise and drought with me, families across the US told me about losing their income stream due to the increase in extreme weather leaving them food insecure. Now, with the current global human trafficking crisis, I read every day about people forced to flee their traditional communities and becoming climate refugees. The interconnectedness of the climate crisis to cross cutting issues like human trafficking, food security and migration cannot be overstated and the time to act is certainly now. The crisis of our planet is our crisis, and people all over the world and in our own communities are feeling the effects of our global inaction in 2008 and prior to that, in the 1960’s when the environmental movement first began. The climate crisis, the human crisis, is our crisis, and it is happening right now. Everyday more people are forced into distress migration, opening the door to human trafficking and modern slavery for the planet’s most vulnerable. The issue is multi-layered with many interconnected issues and will require a multi-pronged approach. The big question is, what are we going to do about it? 

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