“It started with the frightening sound of heavy wind blowing.– In front of my eyes, the walls of our house collapsed,” Geeta slowly recounts the devastating cyclone in 2009, hitting her home on Mousini Island. What was once an island abundant with fertile farmland now resides almost entirely underwater.  The growing precedence of the effects of climate change mean there are many stories similar to Geeta’s, and unfortunately many more to come. As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, world disasters strike people in poverty the hardest, and the same holds true for climate change. With the increase of natural disasters decimating coastal towns, climate refugees migrate inland. Facing higher living costs and jobs requiring skills unfamiliar to them, climate refugees find themselves vulnerable to human trafficking and bonded labour.
Climate Change and Human Trafficking
Without a source of income, or even a home, climate migrants fall prey to traffickers. Refugees have relied on their hometown’s coastal resources their whole lives for their livelihood, making for a difficult transition to a new job market. To continue providing for their families, climate refugees find themselves making difficult choices, such as entering debt bondage. Other families hope to provide their children a better life by marrying their girls off or sending their children to work in factories, but these options generally lead to instances of trafficking and exploitative situations of physical, sexual, and mental abuse.
In 2018, India had over 2.7 million people displaced by natural disaster. By 2050 the world will have 200 million climate refugees. The fight against human trafficking is deeply intertwined with climate justice. If we focus simply on fighting human trafficking, there will still be millions more victims of trafficking within the next 30 years. However, if we understand how we respond to climate change directly correlates with the exploitation and trafficking of people, then we can mitigate and prevent further damage.
Prevention is perhaps the most important step, in terms of the sheer number of people affected by climate change.
India has the second highest population of any country in the world, so what India does as a country to fight climate change will have a significant impact on the atmosphere and will set a global precedent. The government can make the decision to transition away from fossil fuels and turn to green energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectricity. This will minimize harmful greenhouse gas emissions which will slow climate change. Shifting governmental funds from fossil fuel industries to green energy, such as the Rewa Ultra Mega Solar Power project Prime Minister Modi publicly lauded, is a promising preventative strategy, as well as a mitigative one.
Investing in green projects also mitigates the current effects of climate change as it benefits and provides jobs to people in poverty, the middle class, farmers, and tribal communities. Furthermore, limits must be placed on industries that continue to run on fossil fuels and release harmful gasses into the atmosphere. This will minimize the current output of emissions and encourage the gradual shift to green energy.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, some states have temporarily suspended labour laws. Uttar Pradesh took the most extreme steps, by suspending 35 out of 38 labour laws, including the Minimum Wage Act, for three years. Several other states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab, have also voided labour laws for the next 2-3 years. While some labour laws have received criticism for their inflexibility, instead of getting rid of them, a pragmatic approach would be to strengthen and revise them. Suspending labour laws leads to exploitative work environments, mirroring or becoming bonded labour and labour trafficking. Labour laws must be upheld and enforced, or the flood of climate refugees will have no options but to work in exploitative environments.
To further efforts to provide climate refugees and potential victims of human trafficking with ethical wages the national bill Code on Wages should be passed. The code would enforce that the minimum wage provides enough to cover basic needs, including shelter, food, clothing, education, and other necessities. Having these minimum standards allows climate migrants to safely rebuild their lives and limit the risk of being trafficked.
Many climate refugees whose homes have been destroyed are left without documentation of their citizenship. Without proof of citizenship, people struggle to obtain legitimate jobs. The government must address this issue, and provide climate refugees with new documentation.
While the government must act to prevent and mitigate the climate crisis, there are individual changes people can make in their everyday lives to reduce carbon emissions such as walking or biking when possible, or for farther destinations, considering carpooling or using public transit. Other ways to reduce carbon emissions include reducing meat and dairy intake, avoiding paper and plastic, reusing or repurposing belongings, and recycling.
On the current trajectory, millions of climate refugees will become victims of human trafficking. However, there are tangible steps that can be taken to prevent disaster and mitigate the effects on the lives already uprooted. The interconnectedness of climate change and trafficking must be taken seriously, or we will fail to protect millions of victims. If we are to want social justice, we must also want climate justice.
By Ashton Skobel
Ashton Skobel is passionate about bringing awareness and change to social and climate issues. She holds a degree in Parks & Recreation from Texas A&M University, and is currently volunteering with an anti-human trafficking organization.