The Effects of Climate Change on Migration and Human Trafficking

Linda Witong, SI Special Advisor to Advocacy, blogs about the link between Human Trafficking and Climate Change.

“Geoffrey Dabelko, a climate security expert at Ohio University, observes that we need to be thinking “beyond the obvious for what climate change is going to mean. It has to be understood in the wider context of migration, human trafficking and movement of people in a warmer world”.

In August of 2016, it was reported that across several states in India, the worst drought in decades was forcing tens of thousands of people to migrate from rural areas in search of water, food and jobs, increasing the risk that they may be trafficked or exploited. Around 330 million people, almost a quarter of the country’s population, were affected by that drought. Destitute women, children and older family members left behind in the villages were most at risk of exploitation as the drought aggravated their situation.

Extreme rainfall is also seen to be particularly damaging—of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides. Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement,with the latest data showing that 76% of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events. [1] Access to clean water is a factor in migration and displacement. Even if, for example, one has water, if it is contaminated, people will seek cleaner water. For if you are a parent and you are aware that your child is at risk of becoming part of the statistic in which one child dies every minute, of every hour, of every day from drinking contaminated water [2], you will become part of those who migrate to more promising regions.

What becomes of people who are in such a desperate situation? A recent 2018 study by Michael Gerrard of Columbia University linked the water crisis and climate change to trafficking. He observed that: “Climate change is a major contributor to migration and displacement. Persistent drought forced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmer to move to overcrowded cities,[3] contributing to tensions that fuelled a civil war that drove hundreds of thousands of people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Among these people who move, those such as women or girls, who are the most poor and vulnerable, could fall victim to human trafficking and become subject to sexual exploitation or forced labour.

SI Special Advisor to Advocacy, Linda Witong in attenddance at the CCPCJ side event on Early Child Marriage

How bad can it get? While no reliable estimates exist of the number of people who will be displaced partly or wholly by climate change, due to uncertainties concerning the rate of climate change, the ability of different societies to cope with this change, and other factors, several estimates put the number of people in the hundreds of millions by the latter part of this century. Gerrard’s work, which addresses the issue of an increase of trafficking as a result of the water crisis and climate change referred to one paper, published in 2010, which predicted that there could be as many as 250 million “climate refugees” by 2050. However, another study in 2016 warned that by the end of the century climate change would force one-eighth of the world’s population — as many as 1.4 billion people, largely from the tropics — to migrate more than 620 miles from their current homes. Some of these “climate migrants,” would find themselves desperate for security and work, and as such, could become victims of human trafficking. Other studies also agree with this grim prediction. It is well documented that displacement leads to a considerable increase in human trafficking. The UN Environment Programme has indicated that trafficking may increase by 20- 30% during disasters, and INTERPOL has warned that disasters or conflict may increase the exposure of women to trafficking as families are disrupted and livelihoods are lost.

How can we protect these migrating peoples?

In order to mitigate the amount of trafficking that’s projected to increase as a result of global climate change, Gerrard says the world’s economies need to transition away from using fossil fuels, which will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and can make the impacts of climate change less severe. “That’s the single most important thing that could be done,” he says. It’s also vital to improve the ability of vulnerable communities to stay in place so that they won’t be tempted or lured away by human traffickers. “If people have clean water and adequate food, they’re more likely to stay. Other adaptations can also help. For example, communities can build their homes on stilts in areas that have periodic flooding, meaning that those homes are less likely to be destroyed…Strengthening enforcement against traffickers could also mitigate the impacts…Don’t go after the victims, go after the traffickers.”

In Gerrard’s law review article he concluded by observing that: “Climate change represents one of the most profound injustices in today’s society, for those who will suffer the most, those displaced from their homes, are the poorest among us – those who contributed the least to the excess energy use that is at the root of much of the problem”.

[1] 2018 Global Risk Index :page 20 on computer, if reading the paper would be page 12

[2] Making Every Drop Count: An Agenda for Water Action High-Level Panel on Water Outcome Document Chapter 2: The Worldwide Challenge A World Off Track: page 11 March 14, 2018

[3] Colin P. Kelley et al., Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, 112 Proc. Nat’l Acad. Scis. 3241–3246 (Nov. 2016), doi: 10:1073/pnas.1421533112.


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