The Climate Change and Human Trafficking Nexus
Climate change increases the risk of natural disasters and places a strain on livelihoods; it exacerbates poverty and can potentially cause situations of conflict and instability. These conditions, when combined with a mismatch between demand for labour and supply and the proliferation of unscrupulous recruitment agencies, increase high-risk behaviours and other negative coping strategies among affected populations. This may include resorting to migrant smugglers, which in turn makes them vulnerable to trafficking in persons (TiP) and associated forms of exploitation and abuse. The impact of climate change, however, is rarely considered as a potential contributor to human trafficking in global discussions or nationallevel policy frameworks,1 and the nexus remains relatively underexplored.
In the absence of academic studies or policy documents on the topic, anecdotal evidence from field practitioners reflected in grey literature indicate that sudden- and slow-onset events both impact human trafficking, although some distinctions in their effect can be drawn:
Sudden-onset disasters can cause unexpected loss of land and lives, and destruction of means of livelihoods, instantly plunging those without safety nets into poverty. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, displacement is likely to occur, giving space for traffickers to operate and exploit affected people, their desire for safety and search for means of income to help restore their lives.
This may lead to either a sharp rise in human trafficking if the region already witnessed TiP or the creation of a new “hotspot” for human trafficking. The effect of sudden-onset events on TiP is often more clearly evident in comparison to the impact of slow-onset events.
Irregular Migration Many displaced persons who see irregular migration as the only viable option to pursue better opportunities may seek assistance from human smugglers, placing themselves at risk of many of the forms of exploitation that are commonly associated with trafficking, such as sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced marriage, as well as organ removal.
Trafficking in camps/camp-like settings Specific attention must be given to the risk of TiP in camps/camp-like settings established to shelter those displaced by natural disasters. As examples from the Asia–Pacific region show, these settings attract criminal actors and can become targets for human traffickers. Sometimes, affected families or individuals may also resort to trafficking or collude with traffickers in order to earn money.
Slow-onset events are also associated with an increase in TiP. Populations engaged in natural resource-based livelihoods that are affected by events, such as coastal erosion, sea-level rise and glacial retreat, may take proactive measures to diversify their income. Migration is one such strategy to diversify livelihoods, implying that slow-onset events can drive outmigration. Traffickers are likely to recruit in such source areas of climate migrants, but also at their destinations, such as in urban slums. On the other hand, when irreversible damage due to slow-onset events occurs (such as in the case of land erosion or repeated droughts), households may face increased debt and poverty. Increased desperation may push affected populations into the hands of criminal actors, and even into colluding with them, as seen in instances of men selling their wives or other female relatives3 or parents selling their children4 in order to cope with the losses associated with a changing climate. Although it can be a challenge to establish that slow-onset climate change contributes to increased TiP, there is enough anecdotal evidence to support the presumption that it will occur and responses should be developed accordingly.
Climate migrants that move to nearby cities often set up in urban slums. Without savings (sometimes lost due to natural hazards), an education or advanced skills and limited access to gainful employment, these migrants have minimal bargaining power to assert their rights and can become easy targets for exploitation. For migrants engaged in domestic work or in the construction sector, this issue is commonplace. Some studies report that women are especially vulnerable as incidents of women originating from climate vulnerable areas being duped by “agents” is frequent. The agents promise employment but instead sell vulnerable women to brothels where they are sexually exploited.5
Many industries that are vulnerable to human trafficking or labour exploitation also have a detrimental impact on the environment and contribute to climate change.6 In Asia, they often lie at the root of supply chains that connect the global economy. There are numerous, well-documented cases in which environmentally damaging extractive industries are underpinned by large numbers of migrant workers in forced labour situations. In South-East Asia, the lucrative palm oil industry is heavily dependent on less-than-ethical recruitment of foreign labour, as well as coercive labour practices.7 This industry exemplifies the link between forced labour associated with modern slavery, industrial-scale and often unregulated logging and the widespread destruction of (the Bornean and Sumatran) rainforests.
Further research is also required to understand the differential impact that climate change has on men, women, boys and girls and how this relates to human trafficking. In general, women and women-headed households are perceived as vulnerable to trafficking, alongside children displaced or orphaned during natural disasters.8 While men are more likely to be subjected to forced labour, women and children may be coerced into prostitution or exploitative domestic work. Current evidence, however, emphasizes the risk faced by women, and incidents of trafficking of men and boys for labour purposes from areas affected by natural disasters are not as commonly reported.
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