Slow onset climate-induced disasters leaving migrants at greater risk of human trafficking
People in India fleeing disasters like drought more likely to have experienced trafficking or modern slavery than those fleeing floods or cyclones
The country's climate change assessment suggests things are only going to get worse (Image: Saurav Karmakar, India Water Portal Flickr)

People migrating to escape slow onset climate disasters like drought are two and a half times more likely to experience trafficking or modern slavery than those people fleeing rapid onset disasters like floods or cyclones, according to new research conducted in two states in India by IIED. India and Pakistan have been experiencing record heat in the last few months leading to drought in some areas. 

According to 'Climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking', people from 42% of households who had left their homes in Palamu, Jharkand state, because of drought had experienced forced labour, bonded labour, debt bondage, wage withholding or exploitative working conditions. Among households who had migrated because of floods or cyclones in Kendrapara, Odisha state, the number dropped to 16%.

Cyclone and flood early warning systems are common across India but states don’t have the same systems for drought which means many go unreported.

In addition, central government funding is only made available to states when a drought is severe, so often state authorities wait for moderate droughts to worsen before acting on them. Meanwhile, people are forced to migrate to survive and feed their families.

The paper presents empirical evidence on the links between climate change, migration and trafficking. It then unpacks the underlying drivers that policymakers should target to deal with this nexus. It explores the extent and impact of climate change on distress migration and human trafficking in two diverse areas affected by slow-onset and rapid-onset climatic events.

Researchers interviewed people from more than 200 households spread throughout seven villages at each location. Overall, 76% of them had migrated. More than half of these people cited the loss or lack of livelihood because of climate change as their reason for moving. 

Ritu Bharadwaj, a senior researcher at IIED, said: “There’s growing evidence that the impacts of climate change are piling pressure on people and becoming a key factor in forcing them to migrate in India but slow onset disasters like drought are taking a particularly disturbing toll. Like a silent poison spreading through communities, they are going unnoticed and unchecked, allowing traffickers to exploit people driven to utter desperation.”

The research indicated that most of those migrating were men who had been farming when climate-related disasters wiped out their livelihoods. Desperate for work, they had little bargaining power, making them vulnerable to trafficking. Contractors would often take them out of their state and employ them in dangerous construction jobs. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jharkhand state set up a helpline run by the organisation Partnering Hope Into Action (PHIA) to assist workers stranded in other states.

The helpline responded to almost a million calls between March 2020 and April 2022, including rescuing 21 bonded labourers from a brick kiln in Chhattisgarh state and helping them to get their due payment, and alerting the magistrate and police to rescue 60 migrants held captive by an agent in Tamil Nadu state. The workers were found using the mobile phone they had used to call the helpline.

Bharadwaj said: “State and national governments as well as the international community all have a role to play in making sure farmers in rural India are better able to adapt to climate change so that they don’t fall prey to human traffickers.”

In 2020 alone, India suffered its worst locust attack in decades, three cyclones, a nationwide heatwave, and flooding which killed hundreds and forced thousands more to evacuate. The country’s first ever climate change assessment suggests things are only going to get worse, with temperatures predicted to rise by 4.4°C by the end of the century. 

The research makes a series of recommendations including the introduction of drought and flood resistant crops, strengthening of social protection systems and digital registration for migrants.


State level

Focus on programmes that support in-situ adaptation and prevent distress migration: Adaptive capacity of households can be enhanced by integrating climate risk management and convergence of different social protection programmes to offer access to food, water, credit, health, education and skill development. IIED’s earlier research has shown that social protection programmes like MGNREGS have the potential to enhance climate resilience.

Improve outreach of social protection programmes in climate-induced migration and human trafficking hotspots: Coverage of social protection programmes needs to be targeted towards the most vulnerable households and individuals in areas prone to high climate impacts that are driving distress migration and displacement.

Promote registration of migrants using digital interfaces: State governments need to ensure that all migrant workers are registered with labour welfare boards and use digital interfaces to track the flow and status of migrants and where they are employed, to ensure compliance to worker rights and entitlements.

Ensure proper registration of workers at destination site: Migrant workers should be registered at village Panchayat level and the Panchayats need to be empowered to issue licences under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. More labour inspectors need to be placed at the block level to monitor and enforce implementation of the Act. While registering, relevant data on the skillset of the candidates could be collected for skill mapping and linking them with appropriate livelihood opportunities.

Improve coverage of food and nutritional security programmes: State governments need to identify food insecurity hotpots and provide doorstep-delivery of key services to ensure the most vulnerable household areas do not fall prey to traffickers out of despair.

Promote gender-specific skill employment at migration sources: State governments need to reduce economic vulnerability of the women family members left behind and link them to entrepreneurial and other livelihood activities.

National level

Mainstream climate-induced migration and human trafficking into climate and development planning: Development and climate policy discourse needs to consider climate-induced migration and human trafficking by developing policy responses and integrating adaptive actions into urban and rural climate resilience plans, migration response plans, and state and national development plans.

Promote climate-smart solutions among farmers: Agriculture is the primary occupation for most migrants. The vulnerability of farming communities can be addressed through adoption of climate-smart solutions in the agriculture sector developed through scientific research. Extension outreach can be improved by designing programmes in collaboration with extension departments of agricultural research agencies and universities.

Base policy on local-level research and evidence: More empirical evidence needs to be generated through rigorous field research to develop need-based and area-specific policies that address climate change driven displacement. Policymakers should research the differential impact of climate change on men, women, boys and girls and how this relates to human trafficking.

Integrate trafficking issues into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and ensure climate finance commitments: NDCs need to identify policies and actions for providing safe migration pathways and addressing human trafficking. This can help in creating the demand for climate finance (Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund).

Strengthen social safety nets for climate risk management: Policymakers need to consider vulnerability to human trafficking in social protection and climate risk management frameworks. They should prioritise prevention of human trafficking by creating a rights-based framework. This would ensure that they have sufficient coping capacity in the face of climate and other crises. Such capacity could take the form of appropriate shelter, food grain, decent work/jobs, livelihood opportunities, skills, healthcare, justice system, etc.

Extend portability of entitlements to migrant workers: The Indian government has already piloted portability of entitlements for subsidised food grain through the One Nation One Ration Card scheme. This ‘Aadhaar’-based portability needs to extend to other social protection schemes like employment, healthcare and integrated child development services. This would make basic services and entitlements available to migrants at the destination.

International level

Take firm climate action on reducing risks of human trafficking: The international climate policy needs to recognise the scale of climate impacts leading to displacements and distress migration. Firm targets and action need to be considered within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mechanisms. This should be in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7, which calls for effective measures to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as child labour in all its forms.

Coordinate international efforts rooted in existing initiatives: Several ongoing international efforts target climate-induced migration and displacement issues like the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Task Force on Displacement (WIM TFD), SDGs, the Sendai Framework, the Nansen Initiative on Displacement, the Platform on Disaster Displacement and the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement. But these approaches and action areas are scattered across several sectors and actors and do not consider the risks of trafficking within their purview. There is a need for a coordinated, inclusive approach that complements and draws upon the work of existing bodies and expert groups. This can facilitate continuous and well structured dialogue, coordination and engagement among a range of relevant organisations, bodies and networks to foster the sharing of expertise and learnings across regions and countries.

Take preventive measures and embrace advance planning to relocate and resettle displaced communities: As climate shocks and stresses are set to worsen, climate change will displace many more millions in the coming decades. Anticipatory action to move people to safety before disasters strike, including plans to relocate and resettle displaced communities, can help reduce exposure to human trafficking.

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