The Human Cost of Climate Change

How climate change makes populations more vulnerable to human trafficking.

Posted May 29, 2020

Climate change isn’t a new phenomenon. For years, the media has flooded us with images of raging wildfires in California and Australia, prolonged droughts in South Asia and East Africa, and polar bears starving in the Arctic. But much less is discussed about what happens to the people whose homes have vanished, whose livelihoods were destroyed, and who were forced to migrate because of climate change. One hidden consequence is increased vulnerability to human trafficking among what we now call “climate refugees.”

You may have heard of the term “climate refugee,” but what you may not know is that the term is politically problematic. In order to be legally classified as refugees, people must be fleeing persecution or violence and must cross a national border. Countries are then obligated by international law to admit them. However, the narrow definition excludes those who are displaced within their own countries, or who choose to leave their countries due to environmental reasons.

Climate migrants, also referred to as “environmentally displaced people,” are not legally protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The reason is that climate-induced migration is often multi-causal and doesn’t fit into the standard requirements for asylum. The environmental displacement of people isn’t so much driven by the natural disaster itself, but by the political and economic systems that deprive people of their rights following the disaster.

Displacement is a growing public health concern. According to the UNHCR, in 2017 a record 68.5 million people had been forcibly displaced by natural disasters, conflict, and other factors — the largest number since the second World War. Two-thirds of those individuals were internally displaced (still in their home countries). Natural disasters are expected to become the largest driver of human displacement. While the precise number has been heavily debated, it is predicted that the number of climate migrants could reach 200 million by 2050, a drastic increase from 19.2 million recorded in 2015.

While the exact correlation between natural disasters and human trafficking varies, research on human trafficking rates following Nepal’s 2015 earthquake found a 20-30% increase in cases in the three months after the disaster. Similar instances of increases in human trafficking rates have been recorded around the world after cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis. What’s more, natural disasters can also indirectly increase human trafficking by worsening existing economic, social, political, and religious tensions. These factors push populations to migrate, consequently exposing them to traffickers.

Types of natural disasters and their consequences

Climate-related disasters are expected to intensify in the coming years. Populations that have contributed the least to climate change are often most affected. Migration has long been one method for adapting to environmental change and its consequences. However, both types of natural disasters, sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset events, can increase the risk of human trafficking.

Sudden-onset disasters are unexpected and produce instant losses in terms of human lives, land, and livelihoods. In events like tsunamis and hurricanes, homes are destroyed, and jobs are lost within a very short period of time, immediately forcing people into poverty, often sparking migration. Populations who are displaced are more vulnerable to human traffickers, who appear to offer them financial stability but instead may exploit them.

For example, in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, displaced four million people, and fueled a second humanitarian crisis: labor and sex trafficking of women and girls. The country reported a rise in sexual violence of over 5,000 cases in the month following the disaster. Human traffickers offered women free tickets to Angeles City, the sex tourism capital of the Philippines. The women thought that the offer would allow them to escape the post-catastrophe situations in their hometowns. Instead, they were recruited to work in bars or do domestic work for low pay. The stigma and shame of working in the commercial sex industry were significant barriers that contributed to few women eventually returning to their hometowns. The need for an income source to send money back home to support family also kept them in these positions.

Slow-onset events refer to gradual environmental damage, such as rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and glacial retreats. While the impact of slow-onset events is not as clear-cut as sudden-onset disasters, the consequences can be equally devastating. Populations that are highly dependent on natural resources risk losing their livelihoods, which compels them to seek new avenues to earn money and survive. Millions migrate to nearby urban slums, where their rights and bargaining powers are diminished due to a lack of education and job opportunities, and constricted social networks. In Assam, a state in Northeastern India, recurring floods have threatened the region’s agricultural economy. A 2012 report by the Center of Environment, Social, and Policy Research found that fewer women are working in agriculture and are being forced to find other means to put food on the table. Human traffickers are then poised to take advantage of migrants’ vulnerability.

Lack of legal protection among climate migrants

The impact of human trafficking on climate migrants is particularly concerning as they lack legal protection. Improved political and economic systems need to be developed to protect the rights of climate migrants.  

Some say the global community should establish a refugee status for people displaced by climate change. However, the lack of collaboration across and within countries to protect climate refugees presents a grim future. Some advocates believe that an international treaty to give distinct rights to populations displaced due to environmental conditions would be insufficient. The current refugee convention has been signed by 148 countries, yet the number of refugees is soaring. A good example of the enormous battle that this presents are the unsuccessful efforts made in courts in Australia and New Zealand to obtain refugee status for people displaced by climate change.

Without recognition as a refugee, climate migrants lack the financial, political, and legal structures needed to protect their human rights, including a safe migration experience, and the ability to resume their livelihoods in a more hospitable setting. The bureaucratic failure to protect the growing number of climate migrants calls for the need to prevent or slow climate change. This process begins with raising awareness and changing individual habits. It is crucial that countries mitigate the impact of climate change, and better prepare their citizens to adapt to it.

The disproportionate vulnerability of women and children

Women and children are most vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking amongst all climate migration situations. Men are often trafficked into forced labor overseas and women are left in a new environment to provide financially for their households. With limited education, employment opportunities, or skills, women may be forced to find alternative ways to financially support their children. It is within this context that they may be coerced into sex work or exploitative domestic work or become human trafficking victims. Women and girls can be sold in exchange for aid supplies and food, forced to trade sex with border guards for safe passage, or recruited by human traffickers under the guise of a lucrative financial offer.

As explained by Justine Calma, an environmental justice reporter, “Climate change is making it easier for human traffickers to operate in spaces where there is a breakdown of infrastructure and a chaotic movement of people.” This leads to the creation of new hot spots for trafficking. Put simply, human trafficking thrives where people are desperate and displaced.

Future implications

The link between climate change and human trafficking is bi-directional. On the one hand, climate change prompts natural disasters that expose populations to human trafficking. On the other hand, climate migrants are often trafficked into labor work with practices that contribute to further climate change.

For instance, climate change has devastated agrarian production in Cambodia, causing farmers to take out loans from microfinance institutions. The majority of debt-bonded farmers become brick workers to pay back the loan, a horrible job that is associated with the emission of noxious gases and excavation of clay. Other forms of cheap slave labor that have been shown to contribute to environmental degradation include deforestation, highly pollutive methods of shrimp farming, and gold mining.

Take action

Migration sparks heated debate and has fueled anti-immigration policies now being implemented around the world. Climate-induced migration will only increase as natural disasters are predicted to intensify in the coming decades. We must evaluate and improve the political and economic systems that make individuals susceptible to climate-induced migration.  

Some recommendations to address the challenges faced by climate refugees:

  1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change.
  2. Join global efforts to collaborate on climate change research and policy.
  3. Help communities adapt to climate change.
  4. Improve disaster preparedness.
  5. Provide adequate support services following disasters for vulnerable groups, such as women and children.
  6. Plan in advance for orderly relocation when necessary, including advance agreements on which countries will accept migrants.
  7. Arrange for safe passage of people who have been displaced.
  8. Protect people who have migrated and allow them to develop livelihoods.
  9. Take strong enforcement actions against traffickers.
  10. Raise awareness about climate change’s association with human trafficking.

This post was co-written by Mellissa Withers and Mim Buranasiri.

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program.

Mim Buranasiri is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in global health.