Climate change leaving women vulnerable to slavery, bonded-labour and trafficking

Press release, 20 September 2021
New evidence from northern Ghana and the Sundarbans outlines critical link.

Climate shocks such as severe drought and powerful cyclones are making women more vulnerable to human trafficking and forms of modern slavery, including bonded labour, according to new research from Anti-Slavery International and IIED.

The report, 'Climate-induced migration and modern slavery: a toolkit for policymakers', is among the first pieces of research to outline the link between modern slavery and migration induced by climate change. As world leaders prepare to gather for the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, the organisations are calling on policymakers to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery.

Through interviews and focus-group discussions, researchers found drought in northern Ghana was leading young men and women to migrate to major cities, with many young women working as head porters particularly at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery where workers are exploited to pay off a debt. 

In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused seawater flooding, reducing land available for farming. With countries in southeast Asia introducing tighter immigration restrictions, researchers found smugglers and traffickers were operating without restriction in the disaster-prone delta regions, particularly targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income.

Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the neighbouring country border. 

Fran Witt, Anti-Slavery International’s climate change and modern slavery advisor, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”

IIED senior researcher Ritu Bharadwaj said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”

The report has a number of recommendations for policymakers, including the need to:

  • Set firm targets as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to end modern slavery (including forced labour) and human trafficking
  • Involve affected communities in decision making
  • Include concerns of modern slavery in Nationally Determined Contributions – countries’ action plans to address climate change
  • Strengthen and improve social protection
  • Create safe migration pathways for those who will likely need to migrate in the face of climate change, and
  • Take preventive measures and plan in advance for communities who will need to relocate and resettle as a result of climate change.

This report provides important new evidence to inform COP26 and high-level bodies such as the World Bank and the UN on the need to address climate change as a factor of modern slavery.

Media enquiries

For more information or to request an interview, please contact Sarah Grainger / sarah.grainger@iied.org / +44 7503 643332 or Ryna Sherazi / r.sherazi@antislavery.org / +44 2077 379436