Climate induced migration and modern slavery in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh

Modern slavery can be defined as an umbrella term that “encompasses crimes of human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced child labour, forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation”. Today there are 40 million people living in modern slavery worldwide. Despite a strong global focus and growing understanding of modern slavery, the links between climate change and modern slavery have been largely unexplored. Despite this there is growing evidence, particularly in Bangladesh, of climate change as a driver of migration.

Bangladesh’s location, topography and huge population mean it is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, ranking 7th on the Climate Risk Index for countries most affected by climate change between 2000-2019. Sudden shocks such as cyclones, flash flooding and tidal surges are growing in frequency and becoming increasingly severe and are compounded with rising temperatures and saline intrusion on agricultural land and in drinking water. For the millions of people living in the coastal area of Bangladesh, the increasing intensity and frequency of these events damage homes, livestock, and livelihoods, leading to decreased opportunities to generate an income. In response, families apply various coping strategies; many try to stay local and adapt to the changing situation, but many others choose to migrate, and research has shown that this migration is becoming more frequent, longer in duration and an increasing coping strategy for many people in the most climate prone districts of the country. Some studies have begun to see links between increasing migration and modern slavery. As people become displaced through sudden disasters or through migration from gradual compounding factors, climate change is exacerbating vulnerable groups susceptibility to modern slavery including trafficking and bonded labour.

Although the whole of Bangladesh is vulnerable to climate change, the south-west border region with India, close to the Sundarbans mangrove forest has some of the most vulnerable districts to climate change, along with being a hot spot for modern slavery. On the Indian side of the border there are high levels of trafficking and in Bangladesh forced labour, child exploitation and trafficking are rife. The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world bordering southwest Bangladesh and southeast India. It covers 10,000 sq kilometres of which 6,000 sq kilometres are in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans population, half of whom live below the poverty line, rely heavily on agriculture, fisheries and extracting natural resources from the forest. The whole area is hugely vulnerable to climate change, including high intensity cyclones and sea level rise. Floods and tidal surges frequently breach embankments, flooding areas with saline water which destroys crops and pollutes drinking water. The loss of land, livelihoods and decreasing productivity trigger migration. With more and more people looking to migrate, and with India and Bangladesh having a closed border, they rely

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