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Climate change puts millions at risk of trafficking and exploitation

As extreme weather patterns become the norm, millions will be forced to relocate from their homes into the unknown. What does this mean for the future of their security?

Around the world, the effects of climate change have become impossible to ignore. This summer, even major cities like New York and London saw flooding of underground transport stations due to extended periods of rain and major storms.

While metropolises have remained largely unscathed until now, rural communities have been feeling the effects of prolonged drought, flash floods, and wildfires for over a decade.

In fact, in 2020 alone, climate change displaced 55 million people globally. To put this in perspective, imagine the entire population of London searching for a new place to live and work – seven times over.

Two organisations, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International, have been conducting research to find out how climate migrants are settling into their new surroundings. The findings suggest dealing with the climate crisis requires a stronger focus on protecting the humanity of those most affected.

Long periods of drought in northern Ghana have seen young people to abandon their rural roots in search for safety within nearby major cities, and in their desperation to earn a living have become vulnerable to exploitation.

Ghanaian women who have relocated to Accra often take up jobs as porters, carrying items for long distances on their heads. Their employers promise accommodation and meals as part of their employment package, but withhold a large portion of their monthly pay checks – a process called debt bondage – making it impossible for the women to save up for a future of independence.

The research also discovered that climate migrants have a higher chance of becoming victims of human trafficking, sexual labour, and unsafe work conditions.

Across the water, a similar story unfolds. In an area situated between India and Bangladesh, widows and men desperate to flee from the rapidly flooding Sundarbans are smuggled into India with the assurance of securing employment.

Here, new arrivals in the country are trafficked, forced into hard manual labour or prostitution. Assignment to work in sweatshops along the border are frequently reported.

The work of the two organisations demonstrates how the climate crisis is causing a concerning knock on effect, where forced relocation results in a new set of vulnerabilities. Sadly, it also illustrates that the amount of people willing to exploit migrants’ helplessness to their own advantage is abundant.

By 2050, climate change will force a further 216 million people from regions that depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Droughts, poor crop yields, and flooding due to rising sea levels will drastically affect six major regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and south Asia.

At COP26 and other climate meetings to come, the IIED and Anti-Slavery International hope their work will motivate leaders to broaden their strategy for managing the impacts of climate change – looking beyond just the reduction of emissions and building defences against natural disasters.

To adequately manage the climate crisis, sociological and economic factors must be considered. Organisations which focus on locating opportunities for refugees will need to ramp up their work, and governments must enforce tighter restrictions on local employers in order to tackle exploitation.

With COP26 just weeks away, this report will likely be used as a talking point for a series of debates and possible solutions for dealing with the growing climate refugee crisis.

It may be years before we see the reversal of environmental damages caused by climate change, but protecting and nurturing the most vulnerable is a necessary venture that can begin immediately with results we can measure.