Inaction on climate change could lead to a rise in human trafficking

Migrants including Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims sit on the deck of their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia. Myanmar called sad and regrettable a move by the United States to place the country on a list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders, while rights groups welcome it as long overdue. File May 20, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)

The world is watching with anticipation today as President Donald Trump continues his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Without a set discussion agenda, the two leaders will presumably talk about trade, North Korea and, after last night’s U.S. missile strike, Syria, among other topics. But less certain is whether they will broach the subject of climate change – a threat to global stability with far-reaching consequences, including human trafficking.

According to a new infosheet from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) climate change causes a chain of negative effects on entire populations, which can directly contribute to human trafficking.

As climate change increases the risk of natural disasters it compromises livelihoods, exacerbates poverty and can lead to conflicts and instability. These conditions can cause affected people to engage in “high-risk behaviors and other negative coping strategies,” such as turning to migrant smugglers. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to trafficking and other kinds of abuse and exploitation.

“The impact of climate change, however, is rarely considered as a potential contributor to human trafficking in global discussions or national-level policy frameworks, and the nexus remains relatively underexplored,” the publication said.

Interestingly, one political body on which the connection is not lost is the Vatican. In 2015, Pope Francis urged the U.N. to “take a greater interest in this phenomenon, especially human trafficking caused by environmental issues, and the exploitation of people.”

Lacking academic and policy papers to draw on, the IOM primarily examined anecdotal evidence from the field, which indicated that although the impact of sudden-onset disasters on human trafficking is clear, slow-onset disasters contribute to it as well.

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“In the immediate aftermath of a [sudden]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,” the IOM wrote. “This may lead to either a sharp rise in human trafficking if the region already witnessed TiP [trafficking in persons]or the creation of a new ‘hotspot’ for human trafficking.”

Camps and similar settings, in particular, attract human smugglers and traffickers. Affected families may see trafficking or colluding with traffickers as the only means of earning income or irregular migration as the only path to better options.

In the case of slow-onset disasters, the connection is less obvious. Climate change-induced erosion, glacial melt and rising sea levels often leave rural populations with crippling debt and and poverty. Some feel forced to collude with traffickers or sell female family members and children to cope with the financial loss. Others migrate toward cities, where they often end 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,” the migration agency said.

According to a recent ActionAid study, women can be especially vulnerable. Young women from affected areas in South Asia are frequently tricked by “agents” in India who promise employment, but instead sell them into sex work.

The Asia-Pacific region is especially vulnerable to climate-induced trafficking. Prone to both sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters, the region is also experiencing a rise in already high levels of migration.

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In fact, the first time the problem of human trafficking during natural disasters hit the spotlight was in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Child protection agencies noticed an uptick in child abductions for adoption or exploitation. According to the IOM, many organizations have since incorporated counter-trafficking efforts into disaster relief responses.

Although there is a clear connection between migration and trafficking, government measures to limit movement “should be avoided at all costs,” the agency warned. Such restrictions “may in fact compel affected communities to use negative coping strategies,” like smugglers.

“Measures should be put in place to facilitate mobility as a coping strategy, so that movement occurs in a manner that is safe, orderly and dignified, i.e. without the risk of abuse, exploitation and trafficking,” it added, because at the end of the day, people will do whatever is necessary to escape desperate crises.

But first, governments need to acknowledge that climate change causes disasters – whether sudden or slow – that directly contribute to human trafficking when people migrate without protections.

Unfortunately, Trump, the president of the second leading carbon emitter in the world, wants to pull out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, while adopting policies that turn the country inward and close its borders. Thankfully, the leading carbon emitter, China, has stepped up to champion climate commitments. But given its human rights record, will it also lead the way in protecting climate refugees from trafficking?

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.