Climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking

Climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking

Climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking

Women wait for relief distribution in the Lakhimpur district, Assam, India in September 2020. The Kakoi river in the background gets flooded when it rains in the nearby hills, causing floods and severe soil erosion (Photo: Indian Red Cross Society, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

This paper presents empirical evidence on the links between climate change, migration and trafficking. It then unpacks the underlying drivers that policymakers should target to deal with this nexus. The paper explores the extent and impact of climate change on distress migration and human trafficking in two diverse areas affected by slow-onset and rapid-onset climatic events.


Climate-related hazards affected close to 20 million people in India in 2020. Climate disasters add to the stress of socioeconomic factors like population density, income inequality and degrading environment. Together, they increase the risk of loss of life, food insecurity and loss of livelihoods, compelling vulnerable communities to adopt migration as a coping strategy.

But this strategy can put the most vulnerable migrants at risk of modern slavery and trafficking.1 Meanwhile, it also generates social consequences for household members (mostly women, children and elderly) who are left behind.

Climate change and/or climate-induced migration intersects with severe forms of exploitation along at least three pathways: slow-onset disasters (droughts, crop failures), rapid-onset disasters (floods, cyclones) and an amalgamation of conflicts and climate change events. Yet policymakers have rarely considered climate change as a driver of human trafficking. The topic is also rarely discussed in the local, national or international policy discourse. In this paper, we build evidence on the links between climate change, migration and trafficking.


IIED partnered with two grassroots organisations that have a strong rapport with marginalised communities on community rights, access to social protection initiatives, and rescue and rehabilitation of trafficking victims. Through both qualitative and quantitative tools, including a household survey, we covered two contrasting geographies: rapid-onset events in Kendrapara district in Odisha and slow-onset events in Palamu district in Jharkhand. In all, 420 households were covered, 210 in each location. The sample was distributed evenly across 14 villages (7 in each location). The sample comprised households with migrants and without migrants. We asked the sample households questions.


Climate change vulnerability.

Climate change multiplies vulnerabilities. More than 50% of respondents said that environmental stressors (flood, cyclone, erosion, etc.) were more hazardous and frequent in the last ten years. In Kendrapara, more than 60% said floods were a major climate stressor, while 87% in Palamu reported that they were vulnerable to droughts. Extreme events were reported to result in loss and damage to crops, livestock and equipment.

Migration trends.

In both study areas, the dominant form of migration was seasonal.3 Around 85% of migrants in both Kendrapara and Palamu migrated once or twice a year for less than six months. Most migrated for work (80% in Kendrapara; 51% in Palamu). In Palamu, people also migrated for reasons related to healthcare and debt. In Kendrapara, people migrated for housing (possibly due to destruction of houses from cyclones and floods) and education. Most migrants from both study locations were engaged as wage labour in construction (25% in Kendrapara; 32% in Palamu). Those from Kendrapara also worked in factories (24%); 65% of Palamu migrants worked as wage labourers in road laying, brick kilns, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, farms and factories.

Nature and trends of human trafficking.

Distress migrants become vulnerable to trafficking and suffer human rights violations. Slavery-like situations include forced labour, bonded labour, debt bondage, wage withholding and exploitative working conditions. The percentage of trafficked migrant households in Palamu was 42% compared to 16% in Kendrapara. The dramatic difference between the two locations could be due to the nature of climate events. Palamu suffers from slow-onset events, which often do not get the same attention as rapid-onset events in areas like Kendrapara. For moderate droughts, states must respond out of their own budgets. Thus, many states wait for droughts to become severe so they can access federal funds. As a result, many droughts either go unreported or declared so late that communities are forced into distress migration to survive and feed their families.


In both locations, a high percentage of respondents sent remittances home. But Kendrapara migrants sent more than twice as much every month as Palamu migrants (₹11,032 vs ₹5,160). In both locations, remittances were used to meet consumption needs, day to day household needs and healthcare. We found no evidence of remittances invested in economic activities or assets.

Coverage of social protection schemes.

Social protection schemes are expected to provide a safety net to vulnerable families during a crisis, including climate stress. But the coverage of most schemes among respondents was low in both study areas. There was high ownership of cards that ensure access to entitlements under such schemes, institutions and services (eg Aadhaar card, ration card and voter card). Still, MGNREGS job card coverage − which can provide employment during a climate crisis − was low in both locations (33% in Kendrapara; 42% in Palamu).4

Drivers of migration and trafficking.

We analysed climate change impact on migration and resulting trafficking through five broadly recognised drivers of migration: economic, political, demographic, social and environmental (Figures A and B).

Our analysis offered interesting insights. Kendrapara had been one of the most fertile and prosperous regions of Odisha. But climate extremes, in the form of rapidonset events, have proven that even stable ecosystems and prosperous economies can erode.

People in Kendrapara have better literacy and awareness levels, food security and average landholding, higher average household income and better infrastructure than people in Palamu. Most migrants from Palamu belonged to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Caste, whereas Kendrapara migrants were predominantly from Forward Caste and Other Backward Class communities.5 They did not face social discrimination in their villages. The area, unlike Palamu, is free of left wing extremism.

Despite these positive aspects, people in Kendrapara are vulnerable, primarily due to climate change. Higher frequency of cyclones and flooding coupled with sea-level rise and sea water intrusion have caused loss and damage of livelihood assets, soil erosion and land degradation. Consequently, socioeconomic problems such as decline in income, unemployment and indebtedness have cropped up in the last few decades. An efficient social protection cover might potentially enhance people’s absorptive and adaptive capacity. But the coverage of social protection programmes is inadequate. As a result, the vulnerable sections of the area are forced to migrate. The most vulnerable households are prone to trafficking.

By contrast, Palamu is chronically underdeveloped in terms of socioeconomic–political factors. Over time, its climate has shifted from sub-humid to semi-arid, causing frequent and prolonged drought and frost. This has severely affected livelihoods, leading to lower agricultural yields and fewer non-timber forest products. Food insecurity and starvation have increased among the weaker sections of the community, while water for drinking and domestic needs is growing scarcer.

Unfavourable and chronic socioeconomic–political– demographic pressures have further weakened the most vulnerable of the two communities. These factors have forced vulnerable people to voluntarily migrate or become exposed to the threat of human trafficking. Our study shows how climate change has become the new driver of migration and trafficking, dwarfing all others in its impact.


State level

Focus on programmes that support in-situ adaptation and prevent distress migration: adaptive capacity of households can be enhanced by integrating climate risk management and convergence of different social protection programmes to offer access to food, water, credit, health, education and skill development. IIED’s earlier research has shown that social protection programmes like MGNREGS have the potential to enhance climate resilience.

Improve outreach of social protection programmes in climate-induced migration and human trafficking hotspots: coverage of social protection programmes needs to be targeted towards the most vulnerable households and individuals in areas prone to high climate impacts that are driving distress migration and displacement.

Promote registration of migrants using digital interfaces: state governments need to ensure that all migrant workers are registered with labour welfare boards and use digital interfaces to track the flow and status of migrants and where they are employed, to ensure compliance to worker rights and entitlements.

Ensure proper registration of workers at destination site: migrant workers should be registered at village Panchayat level and the Panchayats need to be empowered to issue licences under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. More labour inspectors need to be placed at the block level to monitor and enforce implementation of the Act. While registering, relevant data on the skillset of the candidates could be collected for skill mapping and linking them with appropriate livelihood opportunities.

Improve coverage of food and nutritional security programmes: state governments need to identify food insecurity hotpots and provide doorstep-delivery of key services to ensure the most vulnerable household areas do not fall prey to traffickers out of despair.

Promote gender-specific skill employment at migration sources: state governments need to reduce economic vulnerability of the women family members left behind and link them to entrepreneurial and other livelihood activities.

National level

Mainstream climate-induced migration and human trafficking into climate and development planning: development and climate policy discourse needs to consider climate-induced migration and human trafficking by developing policy responses and integrating adaptive actions into urban and rural climate resilience plans, migration response plans, and state and national development plans.

Promote climate-smart solutions among farmers: agriculture is the primary occupation for most migrants. The vulnerability of farming communities can be addressed through adoption of climate-smart solutions in the agriculture sector developed through scientific research. Extension outreach can be improved by designing programmes in collaboration with extension departments of agricultural research agencies and universities.

Base policy on local-level research and evidence: more empirical evidence needs to be generated through rigorous field research to develop need-based and area-specific policies that address climate change driven displacement. Policymakers should research the differential impact of climate change on men, women, boys and girls and how this relates to human trafficking.

Integrate trafficking issues into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and ensure climate finance commitments: NDCs need to identify policies and actions for providing safe migration pathways and addressing human trafficking. This can help in creating the demand for climate finance (Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund).

Strengthen social safety nets for climate risk management: policymakers need to consider vulnerability to human trafficking in social protection and climate risk management frameworks. They should prioritise prevention of human trafficking by creating a rights-based framework. This would ensure that they have sufficient coping capacity in the face of climate and other crises. Such capacity could take the form of appropriate shelter, food grain, decent work/jobs, livelihood opportunities, skills, healthcare, justice system, etc.

Extend portability of entitlements to migrant workers: the Indian government has already piloted portability of entitlements for subsidised food grain through the One Nation One Ration Card scheme. This ‘Aadhaar’-based portability needs to extend to other social protection schemes like employment, healthcare and integrated child development services. This would make basic services and entitlements available to migrants at the destination.6

International level

Take firm climate action on reducing risks of human trafficking: the international climate policy needs to recognise the scale of climate impacts leading to displacements and distress migration. Firm targets and action need to be considered within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mechanisms. This should be in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7, which calls for effective measures to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as child labour in all its forms.

Coordinate international efforts rooted in existing initiatives: Several ongoing international efforts target climate-induced migration and displacement issues like the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Task Force on Displacement (WIM TFD), SDGs, the Sendai Framework, the Nansen Initiative on Displacement, the Platform on Disaster Displacement and the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement. But these approaches and action areas are scattered across several sectors and actors and do not consider the risks of trafficking within their purview. There is a need for a coordinated, inclusive approach that complements and draws upon the work of existing bodies and expert groups. This can facilitate continuous and well structured dialogue, coordination and engagement among a range of relevant organisations, bodies and networks to foster the sharing of expertise and learnings across regions and countries.

Take preventive measures and embrace advance planning to relocate and resettle displaced communities: as climate shocks and stresses are set to worsen, climate change will displace many more millions in the coming decades. Anticipatory action to move people to safety before disasters strike, including plans to relocate and resettle displaced communities, can help reduce exposure to human trafficking.

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