Climate Change And The Vicious Cycle Of Modern Slavery

Newspaper headlines in the last few years have been sending out ominous signals. Threats of ever higher temperatures, ever more frequent fires, hurricanes, floods and storms but at the same time of drought and water scarcity are now a grim reality. These are simply some of the (well documented) effects of climate change. An environmental crisis that is ravaging the planet. But climate change and the growing frequency of extreme weather disasters are also leading to the intensification of global inequality. The climate crisis not only has a catastrophic impact on the planet, but also, by extension, on people.

As crops, water resources and agriculture continue to suffer, livelihoods are destroyed and communities devastated. Violent disputes over land and water are progressing in number. And due to conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, people are forced to migrate to meet their basic needs.

Climate-induced migration is a less known and less discussed, but still devastating, widespread consequence of climate change. A recent report, from the World Bank Group, has in fact found that climate change is an increasingly powerful factor of migration, which could force more than 200 million people worldwide to leave their homes and move inside and/or outside the borders of their own countries by 2050. As early as 2030, we will begin to see climate migration hotspots. In fact, according to the research, there will be particularly affected macro-regions, such as Latin America, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Areas of the Earth where poverty, inequality and injustice are already being fought.

In this regard, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stresses that the climate crisis is nothing more than a multiplier of threats: on the one hand, we have processes such as rising sea levels, soil salinisation for agricultural use, desertification and the intensifying scarcity of water; on the other, extreme weather phenomena such as hurricanes, cyclones and floods. But climate-induced migration is not a new and unknown phenomenon. Rarely discussed as a climate-related consequence, this form of migration can trap the most vulnerable people into a life of slavery. 

No, this statement is not a stretch, nor is it simple alarmism. It is a reality already present in some parts of the world.


If you think the concept of slavery belongs to the past, you are very wrong. Today, the number of slaves is very high, higher than at any other time in history. According to the Global Estimate of Modern Slavery, in fact, 40 million people in the world live in slavery. The condition of "modern slavery" disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalised; primarily women, children and ethnic minorities. And climate change and climate-induced migration increase existing vulnerabilities. Admittedly, these vulnerability factors that lead to modern slavery are diverse, complex and influenced by many variables. Socio-economic, political, cultural and institutional risks must be considered. But all these are, in turn, increasingly aggravated by the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. 

Of the total number of people in the world believed to be victims of forced labor - one of the most common forms of modern slavery - 56% are in the Asia-Pacific region, 18% in Africa and 9% in Latin America. Climate change will further exacerbate the threats in these areas as migration flows to North America and Europe increase.

Addressing the needs of these populations and the protection of climate migrants is a matter of human rights. Although climate change is increasing poverty and inequality, governments focused on economic growth are failing to protect migrants’ rights and stamp out labor violations all over the world. The failure to recognise climate refugees, is also widening protection gaps and exacerbating the loss of basic human rights for thousands globally. 

As state by Climate Refugees, a human rights organisation that calls for the protection and rights of those displaced by climate change: “Climate refugees and climate migrants are already being exploited and forced into various forms of modern slavery. Without adequate policy in place to recognise climate refugees and account for the threat of exploitation, this situation will only worsen, continuing a vicious cycle.”

Notwithstanding the moral argument, if high emitting nations need more reason to recognise and protect the rights of migrants and climate refugees, the potential for climate mitigation should justify investment.


Written by Miriam Tagini 

Follow Miriam on Twitter and Instagram 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published