How is climate change contributing to human trafficking?
What do you think makes a person vulnerable to human trafficking? My initial thoughts are situations like monetary stress, previous abuse, homelessness, and personal crises. But there is one large contributor to human trafficking that is often overlooked: Climate change.
As someone with an environmental science degree, climate change is something I care deeply about. But when I did some research into how it’s impacting human trafficking, it became even more urgent to me. Not only are we dealing with negative impacts to our planet, but it’s people as well.
Before we dive into the connection between climate change and human trafficking, let’s discuss three important things that may be unclear due to certain political dialogues.
The following statements are based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
Historically unprecedented climate change is, and will continue, occurring.
Humans are the main contributors of this unprecedented change because of greenhouse gas emissions.
We will have to take responsibility for the consequences that the world will endure as a result.
Click here for more info on climate change and how it will impact the future.
The IPCC’s most recent report predicts that there will be an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the global average temperature (compared to pre-industrial temperatures) between 2030 and 2052. This is much sooner than originally anticipated. What does this mean? Basically, the consequences of climate change are going to become more extreme as the years go on.
One of these consequences is an increase in already-extreme weather patterns. This means that areas suffering from extreme precipitation events (think: Southeast region of the U.S. facing seasonal hurricanes) will face more frequent and intense precipitation events. Regions facing extreme droughts (think: Iran) will experience worsened droughts. And so on.
As these natural disasters occur, they lead to an increase in migration as people flee to safer areas. Migration and displacement of vulnerable people is one of the main security challenges associated with climate change. According to the UN Migration Agency, when migration occurs after natural disasters, whether they are slow-onset (like sea level rise) or sudden-onset (like a tsunami), there is an increased risk for human trafficking. Traffickers know that migrants in these situations are vulnerable and searching for means of survival, exploiting them as such.
Let’s distinguish between how populations can be exposed to the risk of human trafficking in both slow-onset and sudden-onset disasters.
Events such as coastal erosion, sea-level rise and glacial retreat result in gradual migration. As these events occur, inhabitants of affected areas commonly face increased debt and poverty as they migrate. Out of desperation, they may take any opportunity available to make money, putting them at a high risk of interacting with a trafficker.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example of a slow-onset disaster leading to trafficking. A family lives on an island in the Pacific that is facing extreme sea level rise. As water levels increase throughout the years, they realize their only option is fleeing to another country. But their livelihood is based on their business that runs on the island. As they migrate, their monetary resources dwindle and they become desperate. In the new country they migrate to, they meet a businessman who recruits the family to come work in his brick kiln making bricks. While working for little to no pay, the children are not allowed to attend school, and the parents face violent threats if they attempt to leave the business. Ultimately, the slow-onset disaster led to this family experiencing both forced labor and child labor.
In the aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster such as an extreme precipitation event, wildfire, landslide, or tsunami, rapid displacement occurs, allowing traffickers to easily exploit desperate populations. If displaced persons are attempting to move far away, they may seek the help of human smugglers involved in crime rings.
In another hypothetical example, a tsunami forces a woman to move further inland as her hometown is decimated. Once she arrives in a new town, she is desperate for money. She meets a man who offers her work as a maid overseas. However, once she arrives, she realizes that she has been lied to. Her documents are kept by her trafficker and he brings her to a brothel where she is sold for sex. Although she wants to leave, her trafficker claims that she is indebted to him for the overseas journey. She becomes a victim of sex trafficking as a result of the sudden-onset natural disaster she faced.
While these two examples are hypothetical, there are real scenarios just like them occurring worldwide as natural disasters become more frequent and intense.
According to the UN Migration Agency, the best ways to tackle vulnerabilities resulting from natural disaster are awareness campaigns in at-risk areas, improving local government’s capacity to handle displacement and properly respond to threats of human trafficking, and keeping databases on displaced persons so that vulnerable people do not fall through the cracks. However, these actions will not be fully implemented until there is a recognition that natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent, are increasing the risk of human trafficking.
This can be a daunting realization. But there are ways in which we can individually reduce our environmental impact.
These include but are not limited to:
Recycling. Simple, right? Disposing properly of recyclable materials (plastic, glass, paper, cardboard, metal) keeps them out of landfills where they take a long time to decompose. Recycling materials reduces the need to produce new materials, especially plastic which is made from oil.
Driving less, taking public transit, or switching to a hybrid or electric car. This way, your individual transportation is emitting less fossil fuels.
Eating less meat. The agriculture industry is extremely carbon intensive. So, try your hand at Meatless Monday! Or reduce your meat intake all-together.
Support environmentally friendly companies like Seventh Generation, Patagonia, Lush, Everlane, Dr. Bronner’s, and many more. Do some research before you buy. Shifting market demand away from large, polluting companies is making a statement.
Tell others about how they can reduce their environmental impact (in a friendly, non-judgmental way of course!)
Climate change is a real problem that needs to be taken seriously. As we educate ourselves on what we can do to help, we can become a more mindful society that is aware of the consequences our actions have.
About the Author
Anna Stephens is a native Texan pursuing her Master's of Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. She has participated in Dressember for 3 years, and plans to continue using fashion as a platform for awareness and eradication of human trafficking. In her spare time, you can find her drinking iced coffee, looking for dogs to pet, or exploring Swedish nature with her friends.