Climate change and modern slavery are linked:

What’s the issue?

Climate change and modern slavery are linked closely together in a vicious circle.

Climate-induced disaster, environmental degradation and growing scarcity of resources are affecting many communities, driving millions of people into poverty and forcing many to migrate in search of work, food or safety. In many cases, victims of the climate emergency will be left more vulnerable to forms of modern slavery, including human traffickingforced labour and child slavery.

Three of the ways that climate change and modern slavery are linked:

  • When people are forced to migrate, they face greater risks of human trafficking and forced labour. People who lose their livelihoods, income and ties to their community are often made vulnerable to exploitation, and in the worst cases, modern slavery, as they are forced to migrate. By 2050, the World Bank estimates that more than 143 million people will have been forced from their homes in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America because of climate change
  • The same industries that drive climate change leave people vulnerable to forced migration. Extractive industries and agricultural businesses in particular contribute to the emissions that drive climate change, while also profoundly damaging the land and water that ordinary people rely upon. This pushes many more people into poverty and forces them to leave their homes and communities, making them more vulnerable to people traffickers and at risk of slavery
  • Many victims of the climate emergency are exploited by businesses that contribute to the problem. Many of the people forced into migration by the climate emergency find themselves trafficked into forced labour, some within the very industries that are degrading the environment – completing a vicious circle in which climate change drives, and is driven by, modern slavery

These problems are especially acute in low-income countries, which tend to suffer most from the impacts of climate-induced disasters. Low-income countries also find it hardest to recover from the loss and damage caused by devastating floods, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and rising sea levels – leaving many millions of people worldwide trapped in situations where they can be exploited.

We must make sure people are protected from the consequences of climate change.

Nobody should be driven from their home, to then be exploited and pushed into modern slavery. It’s clear that this is going to be one of the most challenging campaigns ever mounted by Anti-Slavery International, but we can’t afford to step back: without a coordinated international effort to tackle this problem, millions more people may be pushed into modern slavery because of the injustices created by climate change.

climate change
Caption: Storms over Bunagana in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Olivia Acland for Anti-Slavery International.

What do we want to see?

We want to see a concerted global effort to address climate change and how it fuels human trafficking and modern slavery.

By 2025, we aim to make sure governments, power holders, businesses and other stakeholders recognise climate change and environmental degradation as a major reason why people are exploited in modern slavery.

We are building a global movement, with participation from partners in the Global South and the communities most affected by the climate emergency. We are campaigning for laws, policies and support that will break the link between climate change and slavery. We must work together so we can better protect people who are facing the impacts of climate change, from being left vulnerable to slavery as well.

What are we doing about it?

We have identified important ways in which people can be protected from slavery that is driven by the climate crisis. That is why we are working with the UN, EU, and international bodies to make sure they are adopted:

  • Legal protection. We are campaigning at the national and international level, partnering with climate change experts to make sure that climate change is recognised as contributing to modern slavery. We are working to make sure that climate finance through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is used to address climate-induced vulnerability to modern slavery, and that national climate plans (on adaptation, resilience and loss and damage) incorporate modern slavery considerations, so that governments and international bodies can establish appropriate protections
  • Just Transition. As people around the world tackle climate change, there will be changes in economies and whole industries as they transition towards sustainable practices. When it comes to renewable energy, we need to make sure that the supply chains of renewable technology, such as solar panels, are free from forced labour and exploitation. The transitions our societies make need to be just and fair: we cannot afford to leave people vulnerable to slavery as a result of crucial work to tackle climate change
  • Leave no-one behind. We already know that many people are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery, because of who they are and where they were born. We consider rural and agricultural communities and indigenous peoples, focusing on gender, disability, caste and other factors which compound exclusion and increase risk of slavery, making sure that nobody is left behind

Our track record

Our work on climate change is at an early stage. In 2021 we published a major research report examining the vicious circle that links climate change to modern slavery. Later on in 2021, we partnered with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) to publish a report on the relationship between climate change, forced migration and modern slavery.

We are building on this, and on our close relationship with civil society organisations, trade unions, international bodies and other stakeholders, to make sure the international effort to tackle climate change includes the pressing need to tackle modern slavery too.

Our research. Find out how climate change and exploitation are linked in a vicious circle – and how the cycle could be broken. Read our research reports: From a Vicious to a Virtuous Circle, and Climate-induced Migration and Modern Slavery.

Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’

Droughts and floods forcing workers from rural areas, leading to their exploitation in cities, report warns

A man sits on the roof of his hut after severe Flooding

Flooding in Lalmonirhat, Bangladesh. Desperate to cross to India for jobs, many victims of traffickers are forced into sweatshops or prostitution. Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty

Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.

The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.

Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.

Boys at lathes turning aluminium pots

Children working in an aluminium pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Up to 85 million children work in hazardous jobs around the world. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty

One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.

She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”

She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”

A woman from Bangladesh

A woman from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, who moved to Kolkata after a cyclone to support her family. Now she cannot return to home without her employer’s permission. Photograph: Somnath Hazra

In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.

Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”

The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.

Floods caused by heavy seasonal rains destroyed homes in Khartoum state, Sudan in August 2020.

The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.

Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change

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