Climate Change and Modern Slavery

October 29, 2021

From today and over the next week, world leaders will gather for the COP26 conference in Scotland. Without firm action to reverse climate change is it becoming clear that millions more people will become vulnerable to human trafficking and modern slavery.  

In Bangladesh, we are already seeing the impact of climate change.  Just last year, Cyclone Amphone caused widespread damage to the country – including destroying numbers of homes belonging to survivors Justice and Care are supporting.  Extreme weather is something we are facing much more frequently and as with so much of climate change, it impacts the poorest most significantly.  

According to the World Bank, by 2050, poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels will force more than 216 million people from their homes.  Most observers believe millions of these are at risk of becoming enslaved.  

Every country is at risk, but few more so than Bangladesh – where one in five of the population live in extreme poverty.  Indeed, climate change is already forcing people to migrate and for some victims of human trafficking and slavery.  By 2050, it is said, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. Up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea-level rise alone.

After their home and subsistence farm was damaged multiple times due to cyclones and high waves, 15-year-old Ayesha’s* family were forced to move to a large city.  There, wanting to help her family survive, Ayesha became vulnerable to traffickers.  She was tricked by the promise of a job in India but when she arrived, was exploited in the sex industry.  

Ayesha’s story is far from unique.  More and more displaced people are moving from their rural homes to urban areas such as Dhaka – up to 2000 a day move to the city.  With little, they are forced to live in city slums – with young girls such as Ayesha particularly vulnerable to traffickers.  We are now helping Ayesha and her family, but many never return home.  

In communities impacted close to Bangladesh’s porous borders, the outflow is to neighbouring countries.  Our own work demonstrates how many are then held in slavery – forced to work in brothels or factories in India, or as domestic servants or on dangerous building sites in the Middle East.  In May 2017, Bangladesh was the largest single origin of migrants arriving in Europe.

In the most affected communities, we also see the rate of child marriages increasing significantly – young girls forced to ‘marry’ older men for sex, or then taken away to be trafficked.  This becomes more widespread as parents struggle to produce enough to provide for their children.  

Through our – work helping to spread the message of safe migration, Justice and Care is doing what it can.  So too in our work on the border, helping immigration officials spot trafficking victims and supporting the most at-risk families with skills training.  

However, unless the COP leaders – sitting together in Glasgow so far removed from the worst impact of climate change – take action, the situation is only going to get significantly worse.  

Read our COP26 Joint Letter signed by 58 Human Rights, Anti-slavery and Environmental organisations asking COP leaders to deliver on the vision of a global, just and transformational recovery that integrates, defends and expands human rights.

Tariqul Islam
Bangladesh Country Director,  Justice and Care

*Name changed to protect identity