Human Trafficking in the Wake of Climate Change and Natural Disasters

Shana Pederson, Founder: Life Preservers Project
Dean Monserrat, Volunteer: Life Preservers Project
September 14, 2019

By all accounts Human Trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that effects every corner of the globe. Some estimates show that annual instances of forced labor now eclipse the total number of slaves stolen from their homelands during the entirety of the transatlantic slave trade (Gerrard, 2018). Current statistics and numbers are admittedly often based on guesswork and are further skewed for political purposes, often to the benefit of larger wealthier nations. Much of what we know about the trafficking numbers occurs only after arrests and criminal prosecution. Further, in order to boost their Trafficking in Persons Report rating, it has been shown many smaller nations have targeted migrants or illegal immigrants and those criminal charges are not always consistent with actual trafficking activities. [paraphrased from Kempadoo, 2017) Regardless, it is a fact that forced labor and sex trafficking is experienced by tens of thousands of men, women and children annually.

Trafficking disproportionately affects displaced persons and migrant women and children who are already victims of climate change, regional conflicts, wars or natural disasters. It also disproportionately affects members of lower economic classes, people of color and people of lower ethnic or religious standing in more homogenous nations. Furthermore, trafficking is not necessarily transnational and, in the case of displaced persons, can often be inter-regional. Smuggling is not trafficking, though smuggling can turn into a trafficking situation for some depending on circumstances.

Migrant Camps have become ubiquitous and now exist in virtually every region of the world. The UN estimates there are roughly 71 million forcibly displaced persons globally as of June 2019. While many will not become victims of human trafficking, the rates of underpaid or unpaid labor are staggering. Additionally, as illustrated through the results of research in Italy (Central Mediterranean route) and Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo*, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Eastern Mediterranean route) from February to September 2017, migrants are particularly subject to some type of exploitation or trafficking practices. When interviewed, 79% answered “yes” to at least one of the four indicators of human trafficking and other exploitative practices. Sixty-seven percent said they had been “held . . . against their will during the[ir] journey[] by armed individuals or groups other than . . . government authorities”; Forty-seven percent had worked without getting the expected payment; thirty-six percent were forced to work; seventy-five percent suffered physical violence of some kind; and 0.3% were approached by someone with offers of an arranged marriage (Gerrard, 2018).

It is estimated that between 17 and 20 million people are displaced annually due to natural disasters. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, there were 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements recorded in 2017 (, many of which occur in developing countries that face a higher risk of internal displacement. Additionally, many others are displaced due to regional conflict often predicated on lack of water, deforestation and desertification (Gerrard, 2018). While these conflicts are not directly related to natural disaster, the common causation is climate change. It is estimated that by mid-century forced displacement could affect hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the world, including the wealthiest cities and nations. This in turn means that the rate of exploitation and trafficking will increase at an alarming rate. 

While sex trafficking is often what we envision when we think of human trafficking, the reality is forced labor is much more pervasive and happens right here in the US. In fact, after Hurricane Katrina an estimated 3,750 people were victims of forced labor in the effort to rebuild after the storm. In one instance, 500 men from India were recruited and forced to pay up to $20,000 in recruitment and travel fees with the promise of green cards, employment and permanent residence for their families. They received none of this and were forced to pay over $1000 a month for their substandard living arrangements. (Stout, 2018)

What Can We Do to HELP:
Natural disasters will continue to happen and therefore instances of human trafficking and forced displacement will also continue to grow. There are several actions that you can take to help address and help fix this ever-growing problem:

  • Become more aware of climate change causes and effects globally
  • Advocate for stronger climate change policy
  • Advocate for workers rights and strong fair labor policies, including protections for migrant workers
  • When a natural disaster occurs, evaluate the available non-profit and government programs that are accepting donations and donate time and resources to those programs you believe will do the best job
  • Raise awareness and money for disaster relief and anti-human trafficking measures through your places of worship, employment, schools and social networks
  • Be PROACTIVE not REACTIVE. While it is important to support communities after a natural disaster, it is equally as important to recognize and work to fix inequalities in communities before disasters strike. This includes supporting organizations that are working to fix crumbling physical and social infrastructures, bolster safer water sources and standards, development of safer, more regulated migrant camps, and supporting and encouraging humane immigration and migrant policies locally and globally



  • Trafficking of Persons Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Trafficking does NOT involve consent.
  • Smuggling of Migrants is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident. Migrant smuggling affects almost every country in the world. It undermines the integrity of countries and communities, and costs thousands of people their lives every year. UNODC, as the guardian the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Organized Crime Convention) and the Protocols thereto, assists States in their efforts to implement the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (Smuggling of Migrants Protocol). Smuggling involves Consent.



Migrant Camp: US Boarder

A view of migrant’s makeshift camp, near the village of Idomeni. Greece. Photo: Reuters



Displaced Persons Figures at a Glance- 2019



International Organization for Migration:



The War on Humans: Anti-Trafficking in the Caribbean

 Human Trafficking in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Human Trafficking, Natural Disaster and Situation of Crisis
Climate Change and Human Trafficking After the Paris Agreement


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