Modern slavery risks set to rise as number of climate migrants surge

Human Rights Outlook 2019

Direct threats from higher temperatures, more frequent droughts, floods and storms, and water scarcity are well-documented as the primary impacts of climate change. Less heralded is how these events drive modern slavery risks, both in countries where the effects of climate change are expected to be most severe and in less threatened countries in Europe and North America. By mid-century, there could be over 140 million climate migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America as a combination of tougher growing conditions, poverty, erratic food prices, and conflicts over scarce resources forces people from their homes.

Of the nearly 25 million people worldwide thought to be the victims of forced labour – 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 exacerbate threats in these areas further as migrant flows between rural and urban areas increase.

But movement to the United States or Europe, where climate impacts are less acute, can be perilous. Although the United States is rated as ‘medium risk’ and is ranked 143rd in our Modern Slavery Index (MSI), undocumented labourers currently make up a tenth of California’s workforce, of which thousands are working under slave-like conditions in agriculture. The state ranks behind only Texas as the worst in the US for human trafficking according to NGOs, and our industry risk scoring ranks agricultural products in the US as high-risk for migrant labour.

Business set to face ‘perfect storm’ as two risks collide

While slavery affects all sectors, our industry risk data shows the food and beverage, agriculture and seafood, construction, manufacturing and transport industries are most exposed to the practice. Companies in these sectors face a perfect storm of rising interest from investors, NGOs, and consumers in their social and climate policies alongside the global expansion of modern slavery laws and mandatory reporting legislation.

Climate change will heighten modern slavery risks in transit countries and entry points to North America

Supply chains are extremely complex, and therefore require in-depth due diligence, marrying on the ground audits with risk data, to pinpoint areas where workers are most at risk of slavery-like conditions.

Plotting our Modern Slavery Index alongside our Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) helps highlight the relationship between the two issues: modern slavery risks are particularly acute where climate change risks are highest. This is no great surprise given that all but one of the 20 most at-risk countries in the CCVI are ranked as ‘high’ or ‘extreme risk’ for modern slavery – most of the highest risk countries in both indices are in Africa.

Migration routes and landing countries hold significant modern slavery risks

Modern slavery risks are also very significant in countries along the main migration routes into North America, notably the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, all of which are categorised as ‘high risk’ and are ranked 93rd, 84th and 90th in the MSI, respectively. We’ve already seen how prolonged drought has spiked migration from these countries, but we can expect numbers to rise significantly.

Migrants are less exposed to modern slavery risks in EU nations and entry points, but threats still exist

The recurrent dry spells and water scarcity that accompany climate change will, alongside ongoing poverty and violence, increase migration flows. In turn, we will see more exploitation of desperate people gambling everything to reach safety.

The European picture is slightly different. Countries of staging and entry points to Europe such as Algeria, Morocco and Bulgaria are all rated as medium to high-risk in our Modern Slavery Index, and are ranked 127th, 120th and 114th. Libya, where most violations occur, is categorised as ‘extreme risk’ and is ranked as 10th worst performing country in the index. Typically, transition countries here are less vulnerable to climate change than in Central America, but Morocco, Algeria, and Cyprus are all considered ‘medium risk’ in the CCVI, but high risk for modern slavery, indicating areas where increased migrant flows will raise the threat of violations.

Of course, EU countries and the US are no havens from modern slavery. Portugal and Greece are both rated ‘medium risk’ and ranked 160th and 130th in the MSI, while ongoing reports of high-profile violations in Spain, Italy, the UK and US agriculture show that medium to low-risk ratings is no guarantee of safety from modern slavery, including exploitative labour conditions.

Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia among hotspots for climate migrants

It’s worth looking beyond the immediate entry points to see where migrants are coming from. Understandably, movement of people is originating where people are worst affected by climatic changes. Out of the top 10 countries with the most internally displaced people due to climate disasters (like flooding, droughts, or storms), seven – including Nigeria, the DR Congo and Ethiopia – are African nations rated ‘extreme risk’ in the CCVI.

Climate change threats will increasingly drive desperate people towards Europe

These countries rely heavily on smallholders, who manage around 80% of the farmland in the region but will be increasingly driven towards cities that are unable to manage the influx. By some estimates, there could be as many as 86 million internal climate migrants in the region by mid-century. Migrating towards Europe is an obvious option, despite the risks. Researchers suggest that up to one million migrants a year will be travelling to Europe by 2050 under temperature projections that follow the current emissions trajectory.

Currently, around 20% of illegal entries into the EU are from sub-Saharan nations, a conservative estimate given the nationalities of a further 20% are unknown. The political implications of large-scale sub-Saharan and Central American migration are huge: immigration is a major driver of the rise of populism in Europe and North America and resultant restrictive policies could create bottlenecks in the Mediterranean or Mexico, further compounding the risks of trafficking and human rights abuses against those trying to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

Will Nichols

Head of Climate and Resilience