Climate Refugees are Increasingly Victims of Exploitation

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Millions of climate-displaced people are victims of modern slavery. They end up in forced labor or debt bondage, have to prostitute themselves or are forcibly married. Their fate has so far been largely ignored by international politics. This must change.

Climate change is one of the most important drivers of migration. But political measures in the interest of climate-related refugees have been almost nonexistent. In 2010, the United Nations left it at the Cancun Adaptation Framework to point out the need for improved global cooperation to address the challenges of climate-related migration. In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the issue barely makes it into the preamble: Migrants' rights are to be respected, promoted and taken into account.

The problem is that international climate policy is concerned with mitigation (reducing global warming) and adaptation (adapting to climate change), but focuses little on loss and damage -- the damage and losses caused by extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels. Thus, climate-related migration, displacement and resettlement are also disregarded by international policy. At this year's climate summit COP26 in Glasgow, this is unlikely to change much, even though half a day of the "Presidency Program" is dedicated to the topic.

Climate-displaced persons - an untouchable topic

The fact that climate-induced migration is excluded from the discussion on loss and damage is not surprising given its complexity and the challenges it poses. According to World Bank estimates, the consequences of climate change (crop failures, water shortages, sea-level rise) will force more than 143 million people to migrate by 2050, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. But no one wants to be responsible for this and take responsibility -- climate flight is too much of an untouchable topic for politicians.

This was also evident in the drafting of the two UN pacts on migration and flight that were adopted in 2018. The Global Compact on Refugees states that "climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters are not in themselves causes of refugee movements, but increasingly interact with the drivers of such population movements." Since climate-displaced persons are generally not persecuted, they are not covered by the protections of the Refugee Convention, and consequently not covered by the Covenant. And the "Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration," recognizes the need for adaptation strategies to natural disasters, adverse impacts of climate change, and environmental degradation to minimize migration drivers, but refers primarily to the responsibility of countries of origin.

In contrast, the Nansen Initiative's Protection Agenda (now Platform on Disaster Displacement), published in 2016, identifies both the global challenges facing environmental and climate-displaced people and their key needs and rights. It also calls for the international community to take measures to strengthen resilience on the ground, (cross-border) migration opportunities, resettlement from vulnerable zones and, in addition, the protection of internally displaced persons. The agenda also points to an increased risk for women and girls to become victims of human trafficking and exploitation. Existing legal gaps, particularly with regard to transboundary climate refugees, must be closed in intergovernmental dialogue. However, from today's perspective, the agenda does not go far enough: millions of climate-displaced persons are currently exposed to various forms of modern slavery. Consistent adherence to the protection agenda would be indispensable, but is a long way off, despite the Platform's grand commitment.

Modern slavery in migration

Modern slavery is what the human rights organization Anti-Slavery International calls "the severe exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain." It can take place anywhere and look like a normal job. But trafficked persons are subjected to violence or threats, have become inescapably indebted, or have had their passports taken away and face deportation. Many get trapped because they are vulnerable to nasty tricks, traps and false promises -- often as a result of poverty and exclusion, or lack of access to education. Or they end up on the run in camps and prisons, from where they are sold.

Modern slavery takes many forms. They include human trafficking, forced prostitution, forced labor, debt bondage, traditional slavery, child labor, child soldiers, and forced and child marriage. In 2016, the International Labor Organization counted 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, 70 percent of whom were women and girls. About 10 million were children. Twenty-five million were in forced labor, half of them in bonded labor. The other 15 million were in forced marriage.

Information on how large a proportion of climate-displaced people are among these 40 million victims of modern slavery is not yet available. But when people are forced to migrate, the risk of falling into modern slavery increases because of dwindling resources and constant insecurity along the way. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stresses that migrants are "particularly vulnerable to trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery."

Breaking the spiral of violence

A new study by Anti-Slavery International and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) points to the link between climate-induced migration and modern slavery, and provides examples to prove it. For example, human trafficking increased after the tsunami in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, many surviving women of Typhoon Haiyan were forced to work as prostitutes because they had no alternative to find money elsewhere to survive. In Bangladesh, women widowed by Cyclone Sidr were forced into prostitution or forced labor by human traffickers. In Assam, in northeastern India, women and girls face child slavery or forced marriage to make ends meet after annual floods. Finally, in Cambodia, farmers whose livelihoods have been undermined by climate change have been forced into generations of debt bondage by the owners of a brick factory who bought out their debts. The list could go on and on, and it will get longer and longer.

It is clear that without countermeasures, millions more people displaced by climate change will be subjected to various forms of modern slavery in the coming decades. Therefore, the authors of the study call for urgently putting the nexus "climate change, migration, modern slavery" on the agenda of international development, climate and migration policies. Every effort must be made to break the spiral of modern slavery. Governments are thus challenged to:

  • Make migration "safe, orderly and regular," including climate-displaced persons as outlined in the UN Global Compact for Migration.
  • Include in their climate policy, "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDC), in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement, strategies and measures for safe and cross-border migration routes, offering special protection against slavery in the context of climate change.
  • Strongly implement Target 8.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which says to "take immediate and effective action to eliminate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and ensure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including the conscription and use of child soldiers, and put an end to all forms of child labor by 2025."

These actions must be taken so that no one is left behind -- especially not those fleeing the consequences of climate change.