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Economic Precarity, Climate Change, and Mobility - Part III - Human Trafficking

In this series, CDPI Researcher Azin Emami will establish some of the linkages between climate change, displacement, various forms of mobility, and economic precarity. Part III explores how labour migration, irregular migration, human trafficking, and modern slavery are becoming increasingly interrelated.

The two-way relationship between modern slavery and environmental destruction and climate change. (Source: United Kingdom's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner)

  • There are increased risks of human trafficking in settings with displaced populations

  • Climate change increases the frequency and intensity of sudden-onset events and increasingly threatens the livelihoods of agricultural workers, sometimes resulting in displacement

  • The link between sudden-onset events and human trafficking is demonstrable

  • We need to recognize the subtle link between climate change and human trafficking

  • Ensuring that livelihoods can be secured in the context of slow and sudden-onset events is an important adaptation strategy

In Part I and Part II of this series, we have worked to demonstrate that climate change increases the intensity and frequency of sudden-onset events, as well as places strains on livelihoods and thereby exacerbates poverty. This is particularly true for agricultural communities. Whether displaced suddenly or over a longer period of time, locations of displacement can also attract human traffickers. However, the impact of climate change as a potential contributor to human trafficking is rarely considered in global discussions or national-level policy frameworks.


Some scholars raise questions about the empirical evidence regarding assumptions about the link between sudden-onset events and trafficking in personsothers believe there is a clear empirical link. With a paucity of studies and policy documents on the nexus between human trafficking and climate change, anecdotal evidence from field practitioners reflected in grey literature indicates that sudden and slow-onset events both impact (and increase) the incidence and volume of human trafficking, although some distinctions can be drawn on their impacts.

Key terms related to trafficking, slavery, and environmental degradation.


Sudden Onset Events and Trafficking

The effect of sudden-onset events on trafficking in persons (TiP) is often more clearly demonstrable in comparison to the impact of slow-onset events. This is because sudden-onset events cause an unexpected loss of land and lives, as well as the destruction of the means of survival, thereby immediately pushing those without safety nets deeper into poverty. Moreover, 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. Many displaced persons see irregular migration as the only viable option to pursue better opportunities for survival and may seek the assistance of human smugglers operating in regions that are deemed vulnerable by smugglers. Trafficking is more likely to occur in camps or camp-like settings established to shelter those who have been displaced by environmental disasters. Cases from the Asia-Pacific region demonstrate that these settings attract criminal actors and can become targets for human traffickers.


For example, field research conducted in Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr in 2007 demonstrated an increased rate of trafficking in affected districts. According to study findings, criminal networks began operating in the disaster-affected region, targeting widows, men desperate to cross the border to India in order to find employment and income and sometimes entire families. Victims of trafficking were forced in to sex work or hard labour, with some working in sweatshops. Another study conducted following Ayla that struck Bangladesh two years later in 2009 reported similar trends, with households led by women identified as especially vulnerable to human trafficking and associated forms of exploitation. Furthermore, there were similar results in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck in the Philippines in 2013, affecting a part of the county that was already suffering from poverty and human trafficking.


The Vatican is the only entity to have acknowledged the nexus between human trafficking and environmental issues. From 21-22 July 2015, the Vatican organized “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: the Commitment of Cities”, as part of the symposium on “prosperity, people and planet: Achieving Sustainable Development in our cities,” which brought together over 70 mayors. (Source: The Climate Change and Human Trafficking Nexus, IOM).


Slow Onset Disasters and Trafficking

Sometimes, affected families or individuals may also resort to trafficking or colluding with traffickers in order to earn money. In the case of slow-onset events, 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 and support their families. In cases where there is irreversible damage due to slow-onset events such as land erosion or repeated droughts, households may face increased debt and poverty. In all of these instances, women and girls are disproportionally impacted by human trafficking.


Traffickers are likely to recruit in such vulnerable areas of prospective climate displacement, but also at their destinations such as in urban slums. Within urban slums, migrants often have no savings, little education, and limited access to stable employment. As such, these migrants have minimal bargaining power to assert their rights, and can become easy targets for human trafficking and exploitation. This is especially the case for migrants engaged in domestic work or in the construction sector. It is important to note that there is a dual process at play that operates in both directions. Those who have escaped environmental degradation often end up in industries that have a detrimental impact on the environment and contribute negatively to climate change, apart from being highly exploitative. In Southeast Asia, for example, the lucrative palm oil industry is heavily dependent on less-than-ethical recruitment of foreign labour, as well as coercive labour practices. This industry exemplifies the link between forced labour associated with modern slavery, industrial scale and often un-regulated logging and the widespread destruction of the Bornean and Sumatran rainforests.

In Egypt, a more subtle link between environment and human trafficking can be drawn. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people are employed in Egypt’s fishing industry, which has witnessed a dramatic decrease in fish catch since the 1990s. Subsequently, given the absence of livelihood and the increased demand for crossing borders, there has been a rise in the recruitment of Egyptian fishermen by smuggling networks, whose involvement is linked to the striking socio-economic degradation of the country’s fishing sector. Some fishermen fell back into fishing in the territorial waters of Libya and Tunisia, while others opted to switch to more profitable smuggling activities.


Turning to Canada


Unfortunately, human trafficking is a problem that Canada is not immune from. Canada has been identified as both a transit and destination point for human trafficking. However, due to their hidden nature, human trafficking activities are often undetected or unreported. The impacts of the BC floods or Fort McMurray wildfire on human trafficking are still unknown, but the existing research suggests that displaced populations could be more exposed to human trafficking as extreme weather events continue to rise in Canada and around the world. In addition, as the 2021 BC Heat Dome crisis showed, already-trafficked or otherwise marginalized migrant workers can be in extreme danger even once they arrive in Canada.


These incidents of human trafficking in the wake of sudden and slow-onset events demonstrate the necessity of planned response to address this crosscutting issue. There needs to be acknowledgment that human trafficking can be an unintended consequence when migration occurs in the absence of government support and management following disasters and in the face of slow-onset events. In the absence of protection and recognition, affected populations will continue to face various difficulties.


Written by CDPI Researcher Azin Emami, with editorial support from George Benson.

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