Climate Change and Human Trafficking

Following President Trump’s announcement that America will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord – a ground-breaking international agreement of 195 countries to limit the global temperature rise this century to 2 degrees Celsius – dozens of protesters gathered at the US embassy in Dublin to denounce this move. They were led by the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD, who called on the gathered crowd to renew their hope and not give way to despair. Speaking of this set back to the global climate movement as an opportunity, he said “it will galvanise all of us to start taking climate change seriously and switch to the cleaner, more socially just, ecological economy that is available to us.”

For those of us concerned with human trafficking, this must be a galvanising moment. Climate change will have – in fact, already is having – a profound effect on human trafficking. The crisis in the Mediterranean that has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants undertaking the precarious journey from North Africa, the Middle East, and further afield to Europe has demonstrated the vulnerability of people caught up in such an enormous migration flow. Human traffickers have exploited this vulnerability, reaping huge profits by harvesting victims from the masses of people on these perilous routes.  For traffickers, the chaos of this mass migration has created an ideal hunting ground.

In her report to the EU Parliament last year on the situation of women migrants, Mary Honeyball MEP said that the majority of women refugees become vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking. European governments have tended to consider the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from the male perspective but these experiences are not gender neutral. One country on the frontline of receiving these people on the move in recent years is Italy. According to the US Trafficking in Persons Report last year, the number of trafficking victims in Italy “increased significantly due to the dramatic rise in migrants and asylum-seekers arriving by boat from sub-Saharan Africa.” According to the Guardian, “the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) believes approximately 80% of the 11,009 Nigerian women registered at landing points in Sicily in 2016 were trafficked, and will go on to live a life of forced prostitution in Italy and other countries in Europe.”

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released a study in 2016 that highlighted the connection between climate change and conflict. Examining armed conflicts between 1980 and 2010, they found that one in four of these occurred in ethnically divided countries experiencing “climatic calamities”. As temperatures rise and regions of the world become uninhabitable due to floods, sea level rises, crop failures, and food shortages the risk of armed conflict becomes exacerbated. This will increase the number of refugees fleeing violence, thrusting women and girls into particularly vulnerable situations where they are risk of trafficking. In 2014, the number of refugees worldwide reached the highest on record. By last year, there were over 65 million refugees worldwide; that is roughly one in every 113 people.

Climate change is an extremely complex issue and many of the challenges it will create for our society are yet to be revealed. At this stage, however, it seems abundantly clear that the rising global temperature is going to be most severely felt in regions of the world where people are least able to adapt to and survive its devastating impacts. Rather than viewing mass migration across the Mediterranean and its attendant human trafficking crisis as a temporary emergency, the resolution of which will be achieved with the end of the Syrian conflict, it seems highly likely that such migration flows and refugee crises will become the norm if we do not address climate change and mitigate against its catastrophic effects in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

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