The perfect storm: Climate crisis, migration and modern slavery

Anna Triponel

September 20, 2021

Our key takeaway: The inescapable reality of climate change-induced migration is driving millions of people into situations of economic vulnerability and increasing their risks of modern slavery. Solutions to these issues must be cross-cutting and holistic.    

A group of researchers with NGOs Anti-Slavery International and the International Institute for Environment and Development have released a report documenting the compounding impacts of climate change, climate-induced migration and forced labour:

  • Climate-induced migration disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable populations—often the same groups most vulnerable to modern slavery. The report points out that “climate-induced displacements are becoming unavoidable” and the World Bank estimates that “by 2050 climate change will force more than 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America from their homes.” The climate crisis and migration act on “existing vulnerabilities” of groups like women, children and other marginalised people to worsen their socioeconomic situation and make them more vulnerable to modern slavery.
  • Three “emerging pathways” link climate change, migration and modern slavery. First, in the aftermath of sudden disasters, people may lose family members (including wage earners), their homes and their livelihoods, rendering them immediately vulnerable to trafficking or situations of forced labour. Second, “slow onset events/disasters” (i.e. climate-induced drought and higher temperatures) can cause the loss of crops, pasture for livestock grazing, shortages of drinking water and food insecurity. These factors may “push communities dependent on natural resources and farming to look for alternate sources of living. In the absence of viable local options, their strategies may include pursuing dangerous or risky migration opportunities, incurring debt or both.” Third, slow onset events may combine with conflict to exacerbate multiple factors leading to forced displacement. For instance, conflict over resources (which may include water and food) can cause “large-scale incremental forced displacement.” The report acknowledges that a causal relationship hasn’t yet been established between climate change and conflict but notes that “countries experiencing conflict and high levels of insecurity are less able to cope with the adverse effects of climate shocks and environmental changes … and communities are left without the means to adapt or cope.”
  • Policymakers must address the intersections between these topics. The report offers a series of recommendations for governments, ranging from including anti-slavery measures in climate and development planning, to coordinating international efforts to reduce climate change and climate-induced migration, to strengthening “social safety nets for climate risk management,” and more. Though the recommendations are targeted at governments, valuable lessons can be drawn out for companies, such as working with others to address the root causes of modern slavery, reducing their own climate footprint, ensuring ethical recruitment practices to prevent bonded labour and providing remedy. Companies might also consider how to partner with the public sector or otherwise use their leverage to achieve the policy goals outlined by the report.

For more, see Ritu Bharadwaj, Danielle Bishop, Somnath Hazra, Enock Pufaa and James Kofi Annan, Anti-Slavery International and International Institute for Environment and Development, Climate-Induced Migration and Modern Slavery: A Toolkit For Policy-Makers, (September 2021)

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