Slow onset climate disasters leaving migrants at greater risk of human trafficking

Press release, 25 May 2022
People in India fleeing disasters like drought more likely to have experienced trafficking or modern slavery than those fleeing floods or cyclones.

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.

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, Jharkand 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.

Media enquiries

For more information contact Sarah Grainger: sarah.grainger@iied.org or +44 7503 643332

Notes to editors