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Climate Change & Human Trafficking: Part 2
September 23, 2021

If you missed Part 1 of our series, you can find it here.

In Southeast Asia, climate change looks like a whiplash between extremes: rising heat, intense rainy seasons, and droughts. We’ve witnessed this in our own community of families and children we support. The intensity of the rainy season damaged their crops. Ginger became moldy and spoiled. Floods ruined the rice. Droughts caused water shortages, making farming–and their livelihood–untenable. (A drought in 2010 was so severe, the Mekong dried up to the point people could even walk across it in places. In Chiang Rai, people were unable to fish, thus cutting off a vital food source.) Landslides disrupted access to work and hospitals. And the extreme weather led to other stressors and added costs, like fixing weather-related damage to housing. Some people’s roofs even came entirely off their homes. Many families had to leave the community to search for other work. This is the story of how climate change can put people at risk of labor exploitation and human trafficking. 

A recent World Bank report suggested that climate change could force migration for 216 million people over the next 30 years. (Source: VOA News) “Hotspots” of domestic migration could develop as early as 2030–just nine years from now–and continue to spread and intensify through 2050. By 2050, East Asia and the Pacific could see 49 million migrants, and South Asia, another 40 million. The Mekong Delta is likely to be one of these hotspots. Our community members’ experience coincides exactly with predicted impacts: a rise in out-migration in agricultural areas of central Thailand and Myanmar due to declining water availability and crop productivity. (Source: Thailand Business News

Because of Climate Change: Domestic Migration

Even if climate change weren’t the cause of migration, it’s an exacerbating factor causing disruptions that push vulnerable people past their desire to stay home. When access to food and income stability is under threat, people will feel forced to migrate in search of greater stability. In most cases, people from these agricultural communities in the north will move to cities in search of work. Over the long term, this increases urbanization and pressure on cities to accommodate the influx, including providing the infrastructure and equitable resources. It also leads to a growth in slums as people in poverty move into the cities, and therefore, also increased class tensions and the instability and political strife that come alongside.

Because of Climate Change: International Migration

If cities cannot provide viable opportunities, people will migrate abroad. Thais may migrate to Malaysia and Singapore, as well as to China, Japan, and Korea. And Thailand can expect more migrants, especially from Myanmar. At this stage, climate change intersects with border policies, where an influx of migrants often leads to rising nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments. These sentiments often lead to tighter border restrictions, which means migrants feel trapped, with nowhere to go except irregular channels. They become vulnerable to traffickers, either promising jobs that turn out to be exploitative labor or promising passage to a destination with better opportunities, which then turns into labor or sex trafficking. 

Increased Vulnerability

For women and children, displacement means an increased risk of all kinds of sexual violence, including trafficking. 

“Children on the move are easy prey for abusers, exploiters and traffickers and their vulnerability puts them at high risk of sexual and gender-based violence at every stage of their migratory path. When children are in transit alone, they are at very high risk of being assaulted, sexually abused, raped, trafficked into sexual exploitation or forced into ‘survival sex.’” (Source: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

Meanwhile, punitive and restrictive border policies make it more difficult to reach help and can subject them to further trauma in the form of detainment and deportation. 

“In general, girls are most at risk. A result of this is that the little services that do exist are often geared exclusively towards them. This in itself is a significant oversight given that boys make up a majority, often a large majority, of unaccompanied and separated children. This study found that the risk of sexual and gender-based violence against boys is a particular blind spot for communities, humanitarian agencies, and governments, driven in large part by local cultural beliefs, practices and expectations about male gender norms. In addition, adolescent boys can be seen as a threat not subject to child rights. These perceptions further isolate boys and restrict their access to prevention and response services. Finally, where specialized services do exist, there are numerous barriers that prevent vulnerable children from using them. Chief among these is the often legitimate fear that, by coming forward for support, children will be seized by immigration services and sent back to the dangerous places they have fought so hard to escape.” (Source: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

A Lack of Protection

We have legal protections for refugees displaced by war and similar conflicts, but none for climate refugees. While wealthier nations, corporations, and individuals can afford to invest in protections to mitigate the impact of climate change, marginalized people cannot. No country offers them asylum or legal protection, so they have little recourse within current international or U.S. laws.

Those least responsible for climate change–people living on the margins, close to natural resources, and reliant on the earth for their survival–bear the brunt of its effects. Living in poverty or as ethnic minorities facing discrimination, they also have the fewest resources for coping with its impact, or worse, are actively excluded from protections. 

Next week, we’ll wrap up this series with a discussion on bringing the plight and perspective of marginalized peoples into decision-making about potential solutions. The way forward involves thinking about technocratic solutions to reducing and mitigating climate change and also socio-political solutions that aim to help those most vulnerable to it. Caring about seeing an end to trafficking calls on us to prevent people from becoming vulnerable to it for all the myriad reasons they do—including disruption wrought by climate change.


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