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Climate Change And Human Trafficking: Part 1
September 16, 2021

In 2018, a flood hit a Hmong village in the Nan Province of northern Thailand in the nighttime. Villagers woke up to find their houses floating toward the river. A landslide occurred, an essential bridge broke, two children died, over 400 homes were damaged, and the farmers–the vast majority of the villagers–lost their entire crop and a whole year’s income. The loss of the bridge to the nearest city cut off access to work or essential services like healthcare. Many were forced to migrate to Bangkok, which opened up the risk of trafficking, especially for ethnic minorities in financial desperation. More frequent and intense flooding is a story about climate change. It could also be part of the story of human trafficking.

Flooding in Nan Province, 2018

Climate Change and Human Trafficking 

Climate activists are aware that climate change is most likely to have a disproportionate impact on people who are already marginalized and vulnerable in other ways. Vulnerable people include women and children in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, and indigenous people. Those active against human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor know that these same vulnerabilities put people at risk of becoming trafficked. However, there is relatively little cross-talk between the two fields. It exists and is growing, but it could benefit from greater attention, particularly in the trafficking field, which often focuses so heavily on who has already been trafficked. In terms of prevention, there is space to be more forward-thinking, especially considering that climate change is a problem that is already happening. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll pull these threads together to show how climate change is likely to impact vulnerable people. We’ll discuss the potential impact on vulnerability to trafficking and then explain why solutions to climate change should go beyond reducing and mitigating climate change. Solutions should also include provisions to protect those most vulnerable to climate change, while also protecting them from trafficking. 

In a Nutshell

We know climate change is a problem, and it will worsen unless we make some marked changes. The countries and people most affected are often those least responsible: especially women and children, and especially those who are poor, people of color, and indigenous peoples. We can anticipate that life will get harder for them in terms of access to food and clean water, safe shelter, education, and health care. We expect that they will be more vulnerable to climate-related conflicts. And climate effects might mean they will have to migrate to gain access to basic necessities. Poverty and migration, in turn, will expose them to risks of trafficking and exploitation.

Let’s look at these projected impacts on the region and people we work most closely with for trafficking prevention, and then finish with a discussion on solutions. 

Observed and Predicted Impacts of Climate Change

As Irfan and Leber writing for Vox report, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ climate science research group, concluded in a major report that it is “unequivocal” that humans have warmed the skies, waters, and lands, and that “widespread and rapid changes” have already occurred in every inhabited region across the globe. Many of these changes are irreversible within our lifetimes.” Scientists have more evidence and confidence than ever that climate change will lead to more extreme and disastrous weather events like flooding and droughts, which also have knock-on effects like the spread of vector-borne and infectious diseases like malaria, Zika, and dengue.

What This Looks Like in Southeast Asia and Thailand

In Southeast Asia, climate change is likely to manifest in the form of heat extremes and increased precipitation, leading to cyclones and a whiplash between floods and droughts. In Thailand, the capital city, Bangkok, is prone to sea-level rise and sinking land. The agricultural sector, which comprises 30% of the total labor force, is especially vulnerable to extreme weather. The poorest and most marginalized groups are likely to experience the greatest loss and damage. (Source: OCHA Relief Web, Asian Development Bank, World Bank)

This impact on the agricultural community overlaps with the devastation they’re already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Farm households suffered greater negative impact from COVID-19 than general households. According to the FAO’s COVID-19 country assessment, farm households were adversely affected by a loss of income of 39 percent while general households experienced an income loss of 16 percent as compared to their respective levels of income before the pandemic. The smallholders’ income was also reduced by around 40.3 percent due to oversupply and the inability to plant the farmers’ seeds as of the onset of the pandemic.” (Source: United Nations Thailand)  

What This Looks Like For Who Is Most Vulnerable

Experts assert that climate change is likely to have a disproportionate impact on women and children. Of course, they do not mean all women and children. They mean especially women and children in the Global South who live most closely to the land and other natural resources, who tend to live on mere dollars per day, and who do not have access to the wealth or the other resources that can help protect them in case of disaster.

Impacts include:

  • When the reliability of access to crops for food and clean water for drinking and sanitation changes, women and girls have to travel farther to gain access to these basic necessities, negatively impacting their time and safety.
  • “Shortages of safe drinking water and food will have disproportionate impacts on children, particularly the poor. For example, it is estimated that, by 2030, climate change will result in an additional 7.5 million children under the age of 5 who are moderately or severely stunted.” (Source: United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner)
  • Where torrential rain brings a rise in mosquitoes or other elements carrying infectious diseases, for example, in India and Bangladesh, “women dedicate on average one hour more per day to care if they have a climate-related illness in the family and are over two times as likely to be sleep-deprived.” (Source: Smith, Olosky & Fernandez, “The Climate-Gender-Conflict Nexus,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, 2021)
  • When children are sick and can’t go to school, women have to stay home, thus impacting their ability to work.
  • Air pollution exacerbates climate change, which in turn intensifies the effects of air pollution, making it more toxic. “In 2012 approximately 700,000 children under 5 years of age died of causes related to air pollution.” (Source: United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner)
  • The above are the measurable impacts. Harder to capture are the emotional and psychological impacts of dealing with the stress of adapting to these shocks and challenges, of family separation when members must leave to find work or resources, having to fix and replace clothing, household goods, and shelter when damaged by extreme weather, and all the other ways life is disrupted. 

A recent UNICEF report calls the climate crisis a crisis of children’s rights. It has the potential to impinge on their physical, mental, psychological well-being in various ways, and the increased exposure to trafficking risk is one of them.

In next week’s segment, we’ll dive more deeply into the relationship between climate change and poverty and how it can lead to forced migration and trafficking risk.

“They keep talking about climate change being a matter of the future,
but they forget that [for] people of the Global South, it is a matter of now.”
– Vanessa Nakate, first Fridays for Future climate striker in Uganda
Quoted in Naomi Klein’s How to Change Everything

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