Policymakers take note: climate displacement is driving millions into slavery

Many factors force people into slavery; but climate change as a driver is largely ignored in policy and planning.

Ritu Bharadwaj's picture
Insight by 
Ritu Bharadwaj
Ritu Bharadwaj is senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
05 July 2021
An expanse of water next to a bank of soil

Soil erosion caused by the floods in Assam, India (Photo: Indian Red Cross Society via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

We often link the notion of ‘slavery’ with the colonial era. But figures show more people are subject to slavery today than at any other time in history. According to the Global Slavery Index, 40.3 million people worldwide are living in slavery; 71% are female and one in four victims are children under 18.

Modern slavery takes different forms including human trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour, and forced marriage.

The overlooked link between slavery and climate change

Many factors make people vulnerable to slavery – but displacement due to climate change is rarely acknowledged and goes unaddressed in policy.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2019 saw close to 10 million people displaced due to climate-related disasters such as cyclones, flooding, and tsunamis. This included five million from India, four million from Bangladesh and over 100,000 from Nepal.

Reports show how slavery increases in the aftermath of such disasters. And it is the poorest and most vulnerable that fall victim.

Following annual flooding in Assam state in northeast India, women and girls are forced into child labour or marriage to make ends meet. In Bangladesh, women left widowed by Cyclone Sidr (PDF) were targeted by traffickers and driven into prostitution and hard labour. And in the Philippines, survivors of typhoon Haiyan (PDF) were forced to work as domestic servants, beggars, prostitutes and labourers.

Yet the link between climate change, displacement and slavery remains relatively unexplored. The International Organization for Migration (PDF) notes that governments – in global policy discussions or when developing national-level policy frameworks – rarely recognise climate change displacement as one of the key factors driving people into slavery.

We need to mainstream slavery into climate and development planning

The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, climate change will force over 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America from their homes. Climate and development policymakers and planners urgently need to recognise that millions of people displaced by climate change are being and will be exposed to slavery in the coming decades.

Recognising slavery as a mainstream policy issue alongside poverty and climate change will:

  • Develop understanding of the underlying drivers that push disadvantaged communities into slavery
  • Identify risky migration pathways that lead to exploitative work situations, and
  • Identify gaps in existing climate and development policies that leave communities facing climate crises exposed to slavery.

A clearer understanding of these drivers, pathways and gaps can strengthen existing development and climate policies and programmes to support anti-slavery efforts.

The following sections outline action that climate policymakers can take to prevent vulnerable displaced people falling into slavery.

Advance planning to relocate and resettle displaced communities

Sea level rise, salination and flooding is forcing entire coastal communities in countries such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Sierra Leone to relocate.

And climate shocks and stresses are set to worsen. For example, under 2.5°C of global warming, cyclones and storms are predicted to occur twice as frequently. Many more millions will be displaced by climate change 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 slavery.  

IIED and partners are exploring how investment in pre-disaster resilience and anticipatory action can prevent exposure to slavery.

Strengthen social protection programmes to provide safety nets for the most vulnerable

Social protection systems provide vulnerable communities with basic services including education, health, food subsidies, shelter, the right to secure work, and with sustainable infrastructure such as farm ponds, check dams and field bunds that can support their livelihoods.

These systems should provide a basic safety net during climate crises or shocks, preventing climate-vulnerable communities from taking risky coping strategies that expose them to slavery.

But support under social protection schemes are location specific: if rural people are forced to migrate to an urban setting (for example, if their villages are flooded or crops are damaged due to drought) they no longer receive the benefits offered by the rural guarantee programme.

IIED is carrying out research on how social protection schemes such as India’s social protection programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), can be redesigned and strengthened, so they can continue to provide a safety net to vulnerable groups, even to people who have migrated from their native villages. A safety net can help prevent them from taking risky pathways that push them into slavery.

Opening up the dialogue on slavery

Through this research, IIED will support evidence and policy recommendations to address modern slavery and build awareness of the links between climate change displacement and slavery in key negotiating forums including the G20 and UNFCCC summits. It will also support organisations such as the World Bank, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), the International Labour Organisations (ILO) and UNHCR build modern slavery responses in climate change and migration policies.

As part of this work we are working with Anti-Slavery International to explore the relationship between climate change, migration and vulnerability to modern slavery in South Asia and West Africa.