Climate Change impacts exacerbating Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Exploitation says the Anti-Slavery Commissioner

As the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) gets underway, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has taken the opportunity to address, what she refers to as a ‘complex relationship’ between climate change and modern slavery.

In the recent publications ‘COP 26: Climate change and modern slavery’, the Commissioner brings together the research and evidence showing that climate change ‘exacerbates vulnerability to modern slavery’, primarily through to climate-induced migration but also that there is a link between slavery and sustainable production. The Commissioner took the opportunity to emphasise that environmental and social issues ‘need not be in competition with each other’.

For the full article, please see the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s website here.

Climate Change and Human Trafficking

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has released a report warning of an impending ‘climate apartheid’. ‘Climate apartheid’ is considered to be a state of affairs that will be brought on by climate change where wealthier individuals can pay to move and avoid rising heat and hunger, leaving poorer communities behind. This issue has been described as posing a great threat to human rights and the rule of law, in particular such a state of affairs may contribute to an increase in human trafficking.

The conditions for human trafficking can be generated effectively by natural disasters. Specifically natural disasters create conditions where individuals are vulnerable, and whilst these vulnerabilities may be linked to a variety of different factors one of the most significant is homelessness (See HTMSE’s blog on Human Trafficking and Homelessness here). The International Organisation for Migration has identified a particular nexus that exists between human trafficking and climate change. In particular, the increased risk of natural disasters posed by climate change, as well as the social strain caused by climate change which can lead to conflict, poverty, and instability, tends to a more general possibility that climate change may be a major contributor to increases in human trafficking in the near future. However, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states that the overlap between human trafficking and climate change is largely un-researched and scholarship on this topic is limited. Drawing on practitioner reports and available research the IOM describes the impact of sudden and slow onset natural disasters on the risk of human trafficking. Sudden natural disasters were identified as driving an irregular pattern of migration as individuals attempt to leave the affected zone and trafficking from refugee camps set up in response to the situation. Slow onset disasters, such as coastal erosion or repeated droughts damaging arable land, also drives the risk of human trafficking by increasing outmigration, increasing poverty, and potentially unemployment. It is these slow onset disasters in particular that may fuel a situation similar to that of ‘climate apartheid’.

Given that ‘climate apartheid’ will be generated by those with means leaving areas that are slowly rendered inhospitable by climate change it is apparent that measures are required to limit the risks of human trafficking and other human rights abuses. NGO’s have suggested that long-term recovery strategies for sudden natural disasters, such as hurricanes, should incorporate plans to address the increased risk of human trafficking. The IOM similarly advocates that with slow onset disasters long term plans for tackling the issues of climate change should also address the changes to social environments that are conducive to human trafficking. Similarly, efforts addressing human trafficking ought to also account for potential changes in the social environment that may be effected by climate change.

Overall it appears likely that the social impacts of climate change could lead to an increased risk of human trafficking and modern slavery, particularly in areas where climate change causes natural disasters. However, in both slow onset and sudden natural disasters it is possible to mitigate the increased risk of human trafficking by ensuring effective recovery and law enforcement practices are built into long term strategies.

Climate Change and Natural Disasters Induce Vulnerability to Trafficking


Climate change increases the likelihood of natural disasters, forces groups of people into migration or resettlement from their original territory, and leaves people homeless, which are all high risk circumstances for trafficking. Environmental conditions should be a key factor in assessing socio economic wellbeing and security of a group of people against displacement, and in turn exploitation.

In contrast to refugees of war where majority of people that have been migrating are of middle or upper class, when faced with environmental catastrophe they may be pushed into a position of desperation and share the vulnerabilities if the poor. Through a sudden disaster, people may be thrust straight into poverty if all their assets, property and potentially lives are lost as there is often no safety net for unpredicted catastrophes. This shock and rapid displacement of people often attracts new traffickers to the affected area or encourages systems and crime rings already in place. As people are heavily dependant on their surrounding environment, they are suddenly put into situations of desperation for work people become targets for labour abuse or slavery. There is also risk of people becoming involved in the trafficking itself as a way to make income. This of course perpetrates the issue while bolsters the trafficking business in a disaster stricken area.

In slow onset environmental changes, such as sea level rise or temperature change, a similar trend occurs when it leads to forced migration. Traffickers may look to regions where recourses may be scarce or environmental changes cause a change in labour demand. For example drought causes the movement away form agriculture and into more industry driven roles in urban areas, giving traffickers a window for recruitment. Furthermore significant trafficking is seen at host regions or places of settlement, such as in urban slums. Often with very minimal beginnings, little education, work experience in cities or knowledge of their rights, migrants are mislead by ‘agents’ into exploitative work.

Women, men and children all face different risks to environment induced migration. If hit by disaster, children may be orphaned and at high-risk without the care of their parents, as seen after the 2004 Ocean Tsunami in South East Asia as records of child ‘abductions’ in Indonesia were much higher. Women are most often recruited for domestic work or sexual exploitation whereas men are most often forced into labour in inhumane and exploitative conditions. Such work is often in poor environmental conditions, including recourse extraction and dealing with toxic substances, for example palm oil extraction in south East Asia. This constitutes an abuse of their human rights and furthermore contributes to the supply chain of industry pollutants that cause climate change.

To combat this issue, there needs to be acceptance of the link between these climate change, migration and trafficking. There is need for awareness to be raised and regulation in times of disaster and on going migration, as the IOM monitors trafficking rates through their Migrant Crisis Operational Framework. National policy should avoid restriction of the movement of people, because this will push traffickers further underground or into the black market where exploitation thrives. Environmental migration should be regulated as a coping mechanism for victims, which requires international cooperation.