September has been a month of natural disasters, and I personally know people who have been affected.
My grandparents shuttered up their apartment on Florida’s mainland and hunkered down for hurricane Irma. My cousin evacuated from the Keys, hoping that her home would survive the fury of one of Atlantic’s strongest storms to date. A first responder friend of mine in Houston has been working around the clock since hurricane Harvey.
And though I don’t know anyone in the Caribbean, I watched with millions of others as residents had to pause hurricane clean-up efforts and brace for Jose and Maria.
If that wasn’t enough to keep the media busy, Mexico got slammed by by three earthquakes, killing 320 people, and Vietnam was hit by Typhoon Doksuri, the most powerful storm they’d experienced in a decade. Heavy monsoon rains in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have killed more than 1,200 people.
Needless to say, the world is in emergency relief mode.
But while the urgency of food, water, shelter, and recovery take precedence in times like this, there’s another, more subtle need that is often missed – safety from traffickers. Predators know that chaos and uncertainty provide more opportunity to exploit vulnerability, which is why natural disasters can result in more trafficking.
The numbers are hard to come by. There are many qualitative reports and stories about people – specifically children – being targeted by traffickers after natural disasters, but measuring real numbers is tough. Regardless, we can reasonably draw certain conclusions based on what we know about natural disasters, and what we know about human trafficking.
Routine is one of the most pervasive casualties of a natural disaster. It might mean missing a week of work because a road got washed out, not attending school because the school building was damaged, or having to move into a temporary shelter because your home was destroyed. When normal rhythms of life are interrupted, it can make pretty much anyone tired, irritable, and easier to manipulate. When routine falls through the cracks, so can safety.
LOST SUPPORT NETWORKS
The things we take security in, like our homes, our community, and other safety nets, can be stripped away by a natural disaster. Sometimes children get separated from their parents, putting them at high risk. In the chaos immediately following a disaster, traffickers can easily pose as relief workers or helpful neighbours, and lure children away from their communities.
This risk is heightened in regions of the world where births are undocumented, meaning that many children don’t legally exist and are therefore more difficult to find.
If you like novels, Corban Addison’s A Walk Across the Sun is an excellent book that tells the story of two sisters who fall into the hands of traffickers after a tsunami.
DISRUPTED RULE OF LAW
Shortly after Irma wreaked havoc on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten’s, there were reports of widespread hooliganism, where people armed with machetes and firearms looted businesses and robbed homes. Many residents and tourists were afraid for their lives. Though St. Maarten’s is usually considered to be quite safe, the hurricane disrupted the rule of law and people took advantage of that.
Traffickers can also take advantage of such a disruption.
One of the reasons that the correlation between natural disasters and trafficking is difficult to measure is because often it doesn’t happen right away. Several months or even years can go by before a disaster survivor ends up being trafficked.
For example, if a natural disaster claims the business or land of someone already teetering on the edge of poverty, suddenly they have to find some other way to make a living. They might be able to cobble together some jobs in the area, but chances are their entire community has been affected. The alternative is to look beyond, to consider other cities or countries where work might be found. If a trafficker sniffs out a community in desperate need, they know their promises will fall on receptive ears.
I can’t find evidence of traffickers swooping in hours after a cyclone, but I can find evidence of families pushed from their homes, land and possessions lost, and becoming refugees… and in that very vulnerable state, falling prey to the blandishments of traffickers.”
Kevin Bales, lead author of The Global Slavery Index report
As quoted in The Diplomat
While natural disasters elevate vulnerability everywhere, some are more prone to exploitation than others. For example, in a developed country like Japan, there was less concern about trafficking following the 2012 tsunami than in places like Haiti and the Philippines, where some of the root causes of human trafficking were present prior to the disaster.
In a place like Houston or Florida, clean-up efforts can create a new market for cheap labour. This goes hand-in-hand with people losing their livelihoods.
If an undocumented immigrant who lives in Texas or Florida loses their home or their job as a result of a hurricane, they’ll be in a more desperate position to accept any work that comes their way. Because they have no papers, they’re easier to exploit. Elevated demand for cheap (or free) labour during reconstruction can also put these people at risk.
Fortunately, human trafficking awareness is becoming part of the global disaster response effort. Here are some ways that organizations and governments are trying to prevent traffickers from taking advantage of disaster situations:
- Following the Nepal earthquake of 2015, the Government of Nepal prohibited children under the age of 16 to travel outside their home district without an adult approved by the district Child Welfare Boards. Cross-border adoption of children from Nepal was also put on hold for three months after the earthquake.
- Houston’s anti-trafficking team is going to shelters around Houston, educating people about human trafficking, and the mayor’s office is taking steps to ensure that Houston engages in safe labour contracting practices following the storm.
- Organizations like World Vision set up child-friendly spaces as part of their disaster relief effort. A child-friendly space offer kids a safe place to play and the support they need to deal with grief and loss. During a time of chaos and uncertainty, it offers routine and structure, and parents can go about their daily activities without having to worry about their children’s safety.
Here’s a video of a child-friendly space in Nepal in 2015.
If you would like to support disaster relief efforts, which include child-friendly spaces, World Vision is currently asking for donations for Mexico and the Caribbean. You can donate here.
Supporting disaster-relief efforts is just one way that we can help prevent human trafficking. I challenge you to research the current needs in emergency zones around the world right now, and make a donation to an organization that you think is doing valuable work.
Collectively, we can help ensure that a natural disaster doesn’t result in more tragedy.