Climate crisis exposing marginalised rural communities to traffickers

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…as UN-SG calls for move beyond endless discussions, but meaningful action

Perseverance Javangwe

Youth villagers in Mberengwa, the Southern part of Zimbabwe have been forced to leave their homes because of severe drought, and powerful cyclones while being exposed to trafficking. The climate crisis has been another attribute that is driving the Mberengwa community into the hands of traffickers with poverty playing a pivotal role.

The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts, and hailstorms are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of villagers already living in poverty, and becoming more vulnerable to trafficking.

The rise in forced labor, sexual exploitation, and other types of trafficking are being driven by many effects of climate change that are already well known and widely documented. Greenhouse gas emissions are making oceans more acidic and destroying coral reefs, affecting communities’ access to fish, and other food. Rising temperatures are causing the glaciers to shrink, and contribute to sea-level rise, pushing people away from their homes. Intense heat waves and droughts are drastically impacting the livelihoods of farmers who depend on agriculture for their survival.

One village youth from Mberengwa, fell victim to trafficking as he was trying to evade the poverty that had hit him almost his entire life since childhood.

Tinashe (not his real name) a young man, 23-year-old from Chief Negove in Mberengwa was en route to Johannesburg in South Africa. Tinashe grew up as an orphan, and never attempted to go to secondary school because he could not afford it. He grew up looking after other families’ livestock to get food and accommodation. Sometimes during winter, he would go for small jobs at mine shafts. Along the way, as he was going to South Africa he met a transporter who told him about captivating opportunities. He did not know anyone and relied on the transporter to organize links for work. He was trying to escape the circle of poverty at home. According to Tinashe the transporter told him there were jobs in the disused mines around Johannesburg and that he would link him. A few checks done by researchers revealed that these syndicates of artisanal miners enslave Zimbabwean and Mozambican men.

Tinashe, who has had some piece jobs working in disused mines understood how the job is done, and could not be discouraged from continuing with this captivating opportunity that had come to him, saying “…kusirikufa ndokupi, ndikagara muno ndongofa nenzara” (if I stay here, I will die of hunger so, it is better that I go there, and see for myself). Tinashe ran the risk of debt bondage since the transporter was paying for all the expenses involved, and he did not have control of those expenses. He ran the risk of being sold to marshals at the disused mines because transporters do this to recover their money. He also ran the risk of being enslaved by the marshals and being forced to join drug cartels because of his age. But all this never came to his mind and unfortunately, he fell prey to traffickers. He was forced to work without receiving a salary. Luckily for him, he managed to escape and was assisted by the Vukarhani Trust.

The impacts of climate change can soon become big business for human traffickers, as the poorest and most vulnerable people continue falling victim to human trafficking while others become subject to sexual exploitation or forced labor if no action is taken fast. Studies have shown that trafficking is increasing due to natural disasters such as cyclones, flooding, and earthquakes. The marginalised rural population is often the most powerless, and do not have the ability to lobby for their own protection, and is often at the back of the line for governmental attention. Gerald Johnson Shirichena, Director of the Vukarhani rust an organization that assists victims of human trafficking said that due to the harsh effects of the climate crisis rural populations are forced to migrate to different places looking for better conditions. This according to him exposes them to human trafficking.

“…climate change is increasing the risk of natural disasters in rural areas. Because of climate change, poverty levels of people are increased and food insecurity becomes an issue so there are potential conflicts and instability. So because of climate change people look for other options or strategies, these include migrating to other places which leads them to fall into the hands of smugglers and become vulnerable to trafficking. However, due to the fact that they are migrating through unofficial means some end up using transporters called malai cha as they migrate from the climate crisis-hit areas trying to look for something better across Limpopo, this is where they end up falling into the hands of traffickers.

“We have a record of people who have been abused through this way, some reportedly die along the way, some are sexually abused, and they get into all sorts of exploited situations trying to evade the poverty they experience at homes. So climate change has contributed to human trafficking although there is still a need to keep reviewing this through additional academic studies,” says Shirichena.

Fran Witt, a climate change and slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International was quoted as having said, “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes, and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and slavery.”

It is from this view that Shirichena gave an example of children who were exposed to traffickers after the Cyclone Idai disaster that destroyed the livelihoods of the people in Chimanimani, part of the Manicaland province of Zimbabwe. Due to the climate change-induced effects, it is important to note that some vulnerable rural populations are opting to engage in domestic work. Some have run away from the climate-induced situations in Mberengwa, and ended up being trafficked to Oman as domestic workers.

“In cases where natural disasters occur, for example, as what transpired in Chimanimani area which was hit by Cyclone Idai a few years back, there was a situation where the vulnerable were exposed to human trafficking as well as exploited situations. Children were the most vulnerable of course, remember when this disaster happened you would realise that many children went missing because the disaster disintegrated the families as people were running away from the disaster. The majority of the children were used to playing at home, but all of a sudden the cyclone destroyed everything from the looming disaster, and the children who used to play at home had everything destroyed, and people had nowhere to go. So as children searched for places to play they would go far from their areas risking themselves to traffickers, even as their parents searched for better ways to survive some were pruned to traffickers, especially women. So yes, it is valid to say that human trafficking and climate change have a linkage, and if climate change issues are addressed the vulnerability of people to human trafficking is also.

Environmentalist and Climate Reality Leader Priyanka Naik said that there is a need to consider women in terms of access to equal land and natural resources. She said that if gender-sensitive frameworks are enabled women’s environmental rights will be fulfilled, respected, and protected as well.

“…there are a number of things that can be done to avoid this including allowing people to have equal access to land, and resources as well as other assets that often constrain their abilities to deal with climate change and environmental crisis. So giving women access to all these, to land, and natural resources will further capacitate them so that they will not be in situations where they have to look for resources and money elsewhere. Another thing that we should do is to enable gender-sensitive frameworks so that women are protected by the government. There needs to be an underground effort by those who work with women in these situations. So they should be an understanding of what happens and what can be dealt with on the ground so that they can deliver gender-sensitive responses to climate change.

“Also there should be access for these women to legal institutions so that if they are in precarious situations they are able to equip themselves and know where to go and they can enforce their lives on these people if, and when they are encountered in such situations. Transformative change in these cases requires a ground-up approach as well as legal frameworks, empowerment, and enable engagement as well as protecting their environmental rights,” she said.

Speaking during the 77th General Assembly, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that there is a need to make sure that every community including the rural communities should have access to early warning systems so that people are alert and know how to prepare for catastrophic disasters.

“There is another battle we must end, our suicidal war against nature. The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time, and it must be the first priority of every government and multilateral organisations. And yet climate action is being put on the backbone despite overwhelming public support around the world. Global gas emissions need to be slashed by 45% by 2030 to have any hope of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. And yet emissions are going up at record levels on course to a 14% increase this decade. We have a rendezvous with climate disaster. Africa is being affected by famine…no region is untouched. And with every climate disaster, we know that women and girls are the most affected. It is high time to move beyond endless discussions, vulnerable countries need meaningful action, loss and damage are happening now, hurting people and the economies now, and must be addressed now starting at COP27. At the same time we must make sure that every person, community, and nation has access to early warning systems within the next five years,” he said.

Environmentalist Elizabeth Gulugulu says that there is a need to channel the necessary resources toward the rural areas in order to assist in climate adaptation measures.

“…it is very important to make sure that when decisions are being made there is a bottom-up approach, these people are the ones that are on the ground that are being affected by different climate catastrophes, therefore is important that their voices are heard when decisions are being made. This includes the formulation of policies, and strategies, it is important to listen to these people because they understand their losses, they understand what they are actually feeling, and they understand what it means not to receive enough rainfall and be affected by drought year in and year out.

“Secondly it is good that we channel resources to these people so that they are able to adapt to the harsh effects of climate change. In as much as the world is advocating for mitigation, how we should reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, but be more realistic and more practical the effects of climate change have caught up with us. Therefore it is important to focus on climate change adaptation, here we are saying if communities are not receiving enough rainfall what strategies can be put in place to make sure that there is water availability for their crops? Are we looking at irrigation, or water harvesting techniques, are they aware of drought-tolerant crops which can they plant in their communities?

“Awareness is also important. In most cases what causes people to migrate is because the area is no longer suitable for agricultural purposes or support any kind of livelihood. So it is important that people are aware of what is happening. If we are talking about climate change in that particular area, they need to understand how climate change will continue affecting their lives, and their livelihood and also give them the solutions that they do not get to migrate. Solutions on their own are not enough, but should be backed by financial support and technical support, offering different capacities to those communities,” she said.

In order to mitigate the amount of trafficking that is projected to increase as a result of global climate change, Shirichena believes it is also vital to improve the ability of vulnerable communities to stay in place so that they will not be tempted or lured away by traffickers.

“The rural communities need assistance to adapt to the effects of climate change so that we reduce the vulnerability of the people because when the people are vulnerable they are left without options in trying to irk a living. If they remain vulnerable while stuck in their communities without assistance as to how they can adapt to climate change it becomes a risk because they will become exposed to traffickers who will lure them with sweet things that are not even worth the risk. I can confirm to you that at one time in Mberengwa girls were being lured by chocolates. I believe strategies of adaptation, and or risk reduction should involve the rural people themselves because these are the communities that are being affected by the effects of climate change. For example, if there is a disaster applying the programming of building up the resealing in those communities has to involve the affected people because they understand their communities better.

“There is a need to strengthen and improve food security for rural communities. There is also a need to improve the income and living conditions of the rural population through income-generating activities in order to curtail poverty. What it basically means is that if food security issues are not addressed, if the living conditions of the rural population are not improved, and furthermore if there is no improvement in their income we run the risk of having people migrating to other places thereby placing themselves in the hands of traffickers. In other words, what I am simply saying is that rural communities have to self-sustain themselves. They have to come to a point where they irk a living whilst in those communities so that their desire of moving off their premises searching for greener pastures is limited.

“The rural populations have to play a great part in terms of policy making for the development of their areas. So when there are projects for national development plans including coming up with disaster risk reduction strategies there is a need for consultation from these people. Input must be provided by people within the rural community. The rural communities should be allowed to input how they want their communities to be developed, and how they can benefit from the government’s policy,” he said.

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