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Urban Fragility and Why It Matters
July 14, 2022

A report from the International Peace Institute states, “For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s people live in cities. By 2030, three-fifths of the world’s population will be urban.” Urbanization arises from complex factors, including climate change-related stresses that either abruptly destroy people’s homes or access to their livelihoods, or over time have made it increasingly impossible to stay home. As we’ve shared in a previous blog post, climate change is expected to force migration for more than 200 million people in the next 30 years, with hotspots of domestic migration popping up by 2030. 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. As people move from rural areas to cities, in the hopes of escaping climate-related disasters and finding more stable jobs and income, it is expected that the influx of people can strain cities’ infrastructures and resources. If cities are unprepared to handle the influx, it can lead to strife, conflict, violence, and crime–a situation likely to be ripe for traffickers to exploit. Urban fragility, therefore, is something to pay close attention to, to think holistically about how to protect people from trafficking and exploitation–as well as for all of us to be able to cope with the coming challenges.

What is Urban Fragility? 

While rapid urbanization can be a force for better opportunities and quality of life for people, it can come at a cost if city and local governments cannot cope with the needs of a rapidly expanding population, especially as the majority of the population growth is likely to be seen in impoverished neighborhoods. (The global population of slums is expected to reach 2 billion by 2030.) As the International Peace Institute report states, “The world has entered a new era of megacities and urban sprawl, unplanned and vast expansion of urban areas, and increasing economic, social, and spatial inequality.”

If urban management fails to meet the demand for public services (such as electricity, garbage collection, well-connected roads, etc.) and public security, it can lead to unemployment, economic hardship, segregation of the poor, and violence, with some cities facing levels of violence that are comparable to war zones. It is generally recognized that when cities fail to meet their “social contract” to adequately serve the needs of their residents, it can lead to violent civil conflict.

What This Looks Like in Bangkok

Bangkok is one of the biggest cities to draw migrants seeking better opportunities. It’s a megacity of more than 13 million residents, characterized by a distinct capacity to weather major shocks, ranging from financial crises to flooding to a military takeover of government. However, resilience is unevenly distributed across socio-economic strata, where shocks tend to adversely affect the poor and disadvantaged groups more. These groups have fewer resources to rely on to weather shocks. The informal settlements also tend to congregate in places like along the Chao Phraya River and its canals that are more exposed to flooding and pollution, and the health hazards that come from it. Increasing economic inequality also leads to deepened spatial segregation–where different economic groups live in physically separated areas with wealthier groups living in gated communities, such that it makes it more difficult to foster social cohesion across different socio-economic strata. It makes collective action more difficult and amplifies social cleavages. When people are sequestered with other like-minded groups, it creates feedback loops that can lead to more entrenched and extreme political views.

Large influxes of foreign migrants can also contribute to a problem of “residency without representation,” where migrants who live in a place, even for long periods of time, don’t have access to voting rights (even if they are Thai, due to anachronisms of household registration processes). It’s not difficult to imagine that this kind of situation can lead to festering grievances that eventually spill out.

Why This Matters in Anti-Trafficking

Traffickers are always ready to exploit any scenario where people are desperate, cut off from support networks, and where traffickers can get away with it. When the conflict in Ukraine caused a massive influx of refugees, especially women and children, across Europe, it was entirely predictable that traffickers would immediately seek to exploit them. If rapid urbanization accelerates deep income inequalities, and stresses social services so that people cannot meet basic needs–and then cities are unable to provide enough public security (for example, law enforcement is stressed dealing with a variety of crimes), it seems also predictable that traffickers would see this as an opportunity to take advantage of more victims–including child victims.

As a Plan International report explains, “Slums and informal settlements – especially those in fragile cities – are not safe places for children and young people. Without adequate safe spaces to learn, develop and grow in a healthy environment, they are exposed to violence and exploitation of all kinds. The lack of basic infrastructure, such as adequate street lighting, also makes girls and women particularly vulnerable to violence and harassment. Families living in hazard-prone areas often become reliant on the informal economy, seeking unpredictable daily wage work and informal services for survival.”

The complexities of urban fragility and resilience are generally beyond the scope of those working in anti-trafficking. However, given the predicted trajectories of how complex processes will impact the most vulnerable, it seems imperative that those concerned about child trafficking should stay aware of how these issues relate and advocate for programs and planning that foster broader-scale resilience as the best form of prevention against trafficking.

 

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