Natural Disasters and Human Trafficking

flooding high water

When you think about a natural disaster like an earthquake, tsunami, flood, or tornado, you probably picture its physical destruction. You might think of collapsed buildings, families sleeping in shelters, or survivors wading through flooded streets.

However, as many who have lived through natural disasters know, the actual emergency event is only a piece of the devastation that natural disasters bring. There are many longer-term consequences of a natural disaster (poverty, homelessness, hunger, disease, unemployment, delay in paychecks, etc.).

Human trafficking is one of them.

Four Factors That Link Natural Disasters and Human Trafficking  

1. Compounded Vulnerabilities 
Natural disasters compound vulnerabilities that are already present in a community or in a family. When natural disasters strike, families can lose their homes, jobs, and transportation all in an instant. Family breadwinners can be injured or lose their lives. It may require capital that a family or individual does not have to rebuild, purchase basic necessities, tend to ongoing medical needs, and start their lives over. The trauma alone would be enough to significantly impact a disaster survivor’s future. However, when families are faced with few options for meeting their immediate needs, they can become desperate 

Traffickers are able to exploit this desperation following a natural disaster with their usual tactics. Following the 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal, it was reported that many young girls were trafficked by people posing as aid workers. Because people who have lost their homes and livelihoods are vulnerable and because traffickers often pose as trustworthy helpers, victims of disasters are likely to believe that the trafficker’s promise of a better life is true. Traffickers may offer a job opportunity that does not exist or is not what it appears to be. They may offer a cash advance on work that a daughter or son will do in exchange for allowing the youth to come with them to another city to work so that money can be sent home. What the family does not know is that the job offer is fraudulent, and their child is in danger.  

2. Orphans and Separated Children
Children and youth who are orphaned by natural disasters or are separated from their caregivers are even more vulnerable to human trafficking. Separated or orphaned children are highly traumatized and especially trusting of adults during and after the crisis. It would be nearly impossible for a child or youth to discern when an adult did not have his or her best interest at heart if that person is making false promises of finding the youth’s family. Additionally, illegal adoptions are common during disasters. Traffickers utilize mobile technology to send photos of children offering them for adoption to remote families who believe they are helping a child in need. Traffickers collect an “adoption fee” and the child is sold to a new and unknowing family, without hope of being reunited with their birth family.  

3. Displacement
Even when families are not separated, they are often forced to migrate or relocate to flee the disaster or to begin their new lives. Displaced men, women, and children, are often placed in refugee camps or are scattered into neighboring cities or countries. Displacement disrupts social and civic safety nets that prevent vulnerable people from being exploited. Friends, neighbors, faith communities, and public infrastructure are essential to families in crisis. When those supports are removed, families may not have anywhere to turn when they are desperate for food, money, or resources. Further, anytime a person is in a new city or country, there are barriers that make survival more challenging. Differences in language or dialect, unfamiliar laws and legal protections, and different cultural norms make it difficult for disaster survivors to navigate making safe choices. Disaster survivors who are displaced within their own country or city even temporarily face challenges as well. For example, the loss of work uniforms and materials, school and medical records, and identification documents can make obtaining services even more complicated.  

4. Limited Rescue Resources
The dangers of human trafficking in the wake of natural disasters are amplified by an inability for authorities and rescue workers to prioritize anything other than saving lives and rescuing survivors. Especially in countries without strong centralized city or national governments, relief responses can be uncoordinated. Law enforcement workers who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting vulnerable populations and prosecuting criminals are often navigating literal life and death situations themselves, making them unavailable for other needed services.  

Case Studies 

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
More than 11 nations were impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. More than 230,000 people were killed or declared permanently missing. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 250,000 individuals are trafficked transnationally in the southern Pacific region without the context of natural disaster. Following the tsunami, UNICEF received reports of a boat carrying 100 infants away from Aceh Province in Sumatra.  

2005 Hurricane Katrina
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, an Alabama based company named Signal International recruited 500 Indian men to perform oil rig repairs. According to reports, “The workers paid $10,000 a piece to recruiters and were promised good jobs and permanent US residency for their families… When the men arrived … they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents. Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labour camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot units, according to the suit.”  

2010 Haiti Earthquake 
In 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the nation of Haiti. According to a University of Michigan study, “We estimate that 158,679 people in Port-au-Prince died during the quake or in the six-week period afterwards owing to injuries or illness. In the six weeks after the earthquake, 10,813 people were sexually assaulted, the vast majority of whom were female. In the same period, 4,645 individuals were physically assaulted. Of all households, 18.6 percent were experiencing severe food insecurity six weeks after the earthquake. 24.4 percent of respondents’ homes were completely destroyed.” Further, “Survivors continue[d] to experience high levels of sexual assault and limited access to durable shelter.” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive reported that orphaned children were targeted by organ traffickers. An unknown number of orphans were taken illegally from the country for international adoption. Many families were never granted closure on the fate of their loved ones.

2013 Typhoon Haiyan
“The ILO estimated that about 6 million workers were affected when Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013. Of these, 2.6 million workers were already in vulnerable employment and living near or at the poverty line even before the onslaught of the storm.” Child trafficking greatly increased following the disaster. Child victims of trafficking who were child laborers in rural areas were trafficked to Manila for sexual and labor exploitation. Other children as young as 9 years old were required to fill in for injured or deceased family members in work for sugar plantations, exposing them to treacherous work conditions.

Your Disaster Response 
  • Give confidently to vetted organizations serving vulnerable populations, or volunteer with your time.  When domestic and international natural disasters occur, we are often quick to send monetary and tangible donations. Do your research, but know that most relief organizations are indeed providing needed services and are providing the help that they say they are providing. More often than not, it is an individual or organized crime group that is perpetrating false relief efforts. Also, consider how you can provide ongoing support after disasters strike. It is common for relief efforts to wane in the months following a disaster.  However, fully recovering from a natural disaster could take a community years.
  • In the event that a natural disaster impacts your community, you need to be prepared. Few natural disasters are anticipated and none are preventable. However, there is much that we can do to prepare for disasters that affect our friends, families, pets, and property. Explore the resources below.
  • Low income families and communities are often disproportionately affected when natural disasters occur, both in physical damages and in long term recovery efforts. In addition to preparing your own family for disaster, consider how you can assist others in your area with disaster planning. Individuals, businesses, faith communities, and grassroots movements can help low income communities prepare with volunteer efforts, community capacity building, grassroots movements, and more.   

Resources For You
FEMA – Preparing for Disaster 
Department of Homeland Security – Prepare My Family for a Disaster 
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 

Does your community or household have a plan in place for natural disasters? Have you survived a natural disaster? Let us know your experience in the comments.