Twin threats: Climate migrants said to face greater risk of modern slavery

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 20 September 2021 19:06 GMT

A woman street vendor carries water for sale in Kanda neighbourhood of Accra, Ghana, November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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New report warns that millions more people displaced by climate change will be exposed to trafficking and slavery in the coming decades, and calls for policies to protect them

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Sept 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Salamatu, 22, from northern Ghana, has worked as a porter in Accra for seven years after repeated flooding on her family's farm forced her to seek a living in the capital. But she doesn't get to keep much of what she earns.

Her boss takes most of the money to cover her accommodation and even pay for the pan she balances on her head to carry goods - and she owed more after accidentally dropping someone else's things in the market.

"I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay," Salamatu told researchers in a new report on the links between climate-related migration and modern slavery by Anti-Slavery International and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The research includes case studies from West Africa and the coastal Sundarbans region of India and Bangladesh, and shows how more extreme weather and rising seas, which push people to move, are putting vulnerable groups at greater risk of human trafficking and modern slavery.

"Climate and development policy makers and planners urgently need to recognise that millions of people displaced by climate change are being - and will be - exposed to slavery in the coming decades," Felipe González Morales, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, said at the report launch on Monday.

How does climate-linked migration expose people to trafficking and slavery?

Climate change acts as a "stress multiplier" on existing factors such as poverty, inequality and conflict that drive modern slavery, with those uprooted from their homes especially at risk, the report noted.

It describes situations where people affected by climate change impacts - particularly women and girls - find themselves prey to trafficking agents or working merely to pay off escalating debts to employers.

That might include people living in aid camps because their homes were destroyed in a storm, or female family members left behind at home after their male relatives migrate to cities in search of work as the family land becomes infertile.

For example, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, in 2013, many survivors were coerced into working as prostitutes or labourers, the report noted.

Costly and damaging annual floods in Assam, in north-east India, also have led to women and girls being forced into child slavery or forced marriage to make ends meet.

Other climate change impacts such as drought and water scarcity are displacing people from their homes too, as well as saltier and less productive soils caused by rising sea levels and storm surges in coastal areas, the report said.

What is being done about the growing threat?

Little progress has been made so far in tackling an expected rise in people vulnerable to slavery and trafficking as a fast-heating climate makes it hard for them to make a living or puts them in harm's way, the report noted.

One problem is a lack of detailed information on how people are likely to be displaced or choose to move to cope with climate change impacts.

The World Bank said this month that rising seas, water scarcity and declining crop productivity could force 216 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050 unless there is immediate action to combat climate change.

Sub-Saharan Africa alone would account for 86 million of the internal migrants, with 19 million more in North Africa, it said. About 40 million migrants are expected in South Asia and 49 million in East Asia and the Pacific.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change recognises that migrants' rights - alongside those of other vulnerable groups - should be taken into account when governments act to address warming.

But that has so far led to few concrete measures at regional or national levels, the slavery report noted.

It urges policy makers working on climate change and development to recognise the problem and quickly find ways to fill the gaps in supporting anti-slavery efforts for migrants.

Cecilia Silva Bernardo, a climate negotiator for Angola and other least-developed countries, noted there was "still no home for climate migrants in the international community".

"There has been a collective - and rather successful - attempt to ignore the scale of the problem," she added.

What is needed to protect climate migrants from trafficking and slavery?

The report contains recommendations to address the connections between climate change, migration and modern slavery, including practical measures for U.N. agencies and governments.

Clare Shakya, IIED's director for climate change, said efforts so far had been mainly reactive after climate disasters and more work was needed to put in place ways to keep people safe before they are forced to move.

Thinking about where and how to relocate at-risk communities - and how they might earn a living once they arrive - was key, she added.

The report cited the example of Bulambuli District in eastern Uganda, where the government led a 10-year voluntary resettlement programme to relocate households from areas at high risk of landslides to safer ones.

Migrants were provided with housing, services, ways to make an income and land, it said.

Silva Bernardo, who also co-chairs the U.N. Adaptation Committee, said wealthy governments should make money available to "properly" support such efforts - potentially a challenge given the shortage of money going into adaptation programmes.

Ritu Bharadwaj, a senior climate change researcher at IIED, called for stronger social protection systems to help climate migrants.

Joined-up policies at national and international levels, informed by knowledge from people's experiences on the ground, could also help, she said.

So far, approaches have been fragmented and the U.N. climate process has paid little attention to the linkages between migration and slavery risks, she added.

Silva Bernardo said it is clear the international community "has to face up to the prospect of large-scale displacement caused by climate change".
That should start with formally recognising the problem and how it raises the risks of slavery for those forced to move, she added.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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