How do disasters force vulnerable people into modern slavery?

Rescue Global

By Joanne Riches

Often overlooked and under-reported in the wake of a disaster, human trafficking and modern slavery are both devastating consequences in a community made ever more vulnerable. At Rescue Global we believe that it is vital that tackling these be integrated into disaster risk reduction and response (DRR&R) efforts.

Exact human trafficking and modern slavery figures are difficult to obtain; as an illegal and underground activity the chances of gaining accurate numbers is almost impossible. Gathering definite statistics to prove links between human trafficking and disaster events can be equally challenging, although anecdotally disasters as catalysts for human exploitation have been frequently reported. Whilst sometimes not considered a direct consequence of crises, the crisis event prompts additional and specific risks that can exacerbate an already present problem. Disasters are frequently a trigger for opportunistic individuals or criminal organisations, who use the ensuing chaos as a cover to exploit newly, or increasingly, vulnerable persons. This can have significant long-term effects on the populations of a country already affected by a disaster. It is often those who were already the most vulnerable in a society that are the hardest hit by a crisis, leading to an even greater vulnerability to exploitation.

There are several factors that make people more susceptible to traffickers in disaster affected areas. These can include displacement through the loss of homes, sudden loss of livestock or food supplies, children separated from their families in the chaos or orphaned, increased migration and the uncertainties of refugee camps, weakened state infrastructure, and law enforcement and government authorities remaining preoccupied with coordinating more immediate relief efforts. These factors allow traffickers greater access to their potential victims. Outside of a disaster context, human trafficking and modern slavery occur as a result of many interdependent factors. Vulnerabilities created by poverty or lack of opportunity within a country can simply be exacerbated by the destruction caused by a disaster, and recruiters will naturally target the most disaster-affected, and therefore vulnerable, groups. When these pre-existing factors are altered by a disaster, the trafficker/recruiter has to change their response to these factors in order to present a more appealing incentive. Understanding the ways in which a disaster will affect these factors is critical in anticipating the methods of exploitation. An increase in the vulnerability of communities, together with the absence of protection mechanisms are thought by some to be the biggest factors contributing to human exploitation in the wake of a natural disaster.

Some of the methods traffickers/recruiters use include the following: offering jobs either internationally or within the larger cities in the country, offering education opportunities for children, engaging in romantic relationships with girls and young women, or promising emergency relief under the guise of being emergency relief workers. Outside of disaster contexts most of these methods remain the same, but in all situations these people “recruit their victims by selling hope”, cashing in on the hopelessness disasters create. Agreeing to the terms of the recruiter/trafficker, thinking this is the only route left to them, vulnerable individuals or groups believe that it is opportunity they are being offered, not debt bondage and modern slavery.

After the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, the Nepalese government hoped to curb any increases in human trafficking/slavery of the most vulnerable by prohibiting children under the age of 16 from travelling outside of their home district, and by putting cross-border adoption of children from Nepal on hold for three months post earthquake. In Haiti, then Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, stated that illegal child trafficking was one of the biggest problems that the country faced in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

Seen as a low risk, high reward crime, the exploitation of people has become an ever more lucrative business, with estimates that the average profit a victim will generate for their exploiter being around £3000 a year. As one of the leading modern slavery experts, Siddharth Kara, suggests, people are cheap, and they are expendable. They are also making criminals millions of dollars a year through forced labour, debt bondage, trafficking, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and domestic servitude. Forced labour contributes more than $150 billion a year to the private economy, whilst the sex trade is estimated to be worth a staggering $99 billion a year.

Despite the devastating consequences and the identification of this crime as a global problem, the issue is still rarely given priority in emergency relief operations, and often remains largely overlooked by both governments and non-governmental organisations, in part because of the challenges of gathering accurate information, other urgent competing humanitarian needs, and the additional complications of the problem requiring cross border and inter-agency collaboration.

At Rescue Global we believe that countering modern slavery should be one of the focuses of disaster risk and recovery sectors and organisations. This is why we have begun work on projects to include education on and disruption of human trafficking and slavery, pre, during and post disasters, working in partnership with key agencies and organisations in the UK and internationally.

There is a direct correlation between disaster events and people being trafficked through criminal networks. Rescue Global looks at all aspects of the disaster cycle, and the impacts of a disaster do not cease once the worst has passed. Some impacts are just less evident than the immediate aid and relief needs. Therefore, including work to combat human trafficking and modern slavery increases the resilience of a country, communities and individuals during and post disasters.

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