Tipping Point features environmental justice stories written by and about people living in communities that are confronted with the harsh reality of our changing planet.
Seema hid in a shelter as Cyclone Amphan ravaged her village in West Bengal, an eastern Indian state. She watched her neighbours lose everything.
One family was so in dire straits that a man offered to help their 17-year old daughter get a job in the city.
“He offered them money and said, ‘You’re really poor. Let me get her employed and make her life better,’” Seema told VICE World News through an interpreter.
The man didn’t tell the family he was taking the girl to a city like Mumbai or Pune, where she’d be forced to work in the sex trade. According to Seema, the girl, whom she knew personally, is still likely being trafficked today.
Seema, who has had her name changed to protect her identity. She works with Banhanmukti which is a survivor group that supports victims of trafficking. She said that the 17-year old girl is among many who are more vulnerable to trafficking due to the climate crisis, especially in high risk areas like West Bengal.
“If the little bit of land they have is taken away by the sea, then what are they left with?”
Seema said traffickers are “very well clued in” to crises, so they often swoop in and exploit those affected when natural disasters strike.
More than 55 million people around the globe have access to this information. already been forced to move from their homeCommunities have been affected by extreme weather, and the climate crises is expected to cause displacement. as many as 1 billion people by 2050. Today, environmental events displace more peopleRather than violence and conflict. Particularly for girls and women bear the brunt of the climate crisisVICE World News reported previously how chores have become deadlier for women in natural disaster–prone areas, and those fleeing from their homes are struggling to access contraception. Many will have to sell their bodies and their families will be left with little other than their clothes after extreme weather events.
It’s an already-documented pattern: After Cyclone Aila hit India in May 2009, the number of migrant sex workers in Kolkata’s Red Light District increased by 20-25 percent, and many of them referred to themselves as “flooded people.” According to reports, the district grows by up to 700 people every year. Sex work also increased as a “survival mechanism” in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, a Women Deliver report from this year found.
According to a UN report from 2014Some families were so poor after the floods in Fiji, that they had to have their children work sex at night.
A Reuters reportOne teenager, whose family had moved to the city from their home in the floods, entered the sex business and became the main provider for her family. She earned up to $240 per month.
“I was around 14 years old when I joined the sex industry,” she said. “I did it only for the money. I had to buy food. I had to survive.”
West Bengal, specifically the Sundarbans—an area where three rivers meet in the Bay of Bengal—is one of the most natural disaster–prone areas in the world. Nearly every year, severe storms and floods strike, and at least seven months of each year are marked by extreme heat. It’s also a region where many people’s livelihoods rely on agriculture, an industry that suffers whenever floods submerge farmland in salt water and compromise soil quality. There are approximately 4.5 million peopleLiving in the Indian Sundarbans
Some women fleeing natural disasters have turned to sex work to make ends meets. However, it is not clear whether sex can be made consensually when there are no other options. One formerly trafficked woman living in India, who also works with Bandhanmukti, said, “Given the dire financial straits, we’re at a moment when women aren’t really going into sex work willingly.”
Kaushik Gupta, a lawyer at Calcutta High Court in West Bengal, is Kaushik Gupta. He said he’s encountered many women and girls who’ve entered the sex trade, either through exploitation or consensually, because of the climate crisis.
“Environmental issues are adding to the poverty of the already downtrodden… For a person who is a daily cultivator or labourer, if the little bit of land they have is taken away by the sea, then what are they left with?” Gupta said.
Gupta said two policies are needed: safe migration and legalized, destigmatized sex work policies—without fear of police crackdown.
Gupta says that a lot of rescue efforts, sometimes led by Western NGOs are further excluding already-exploited women. Too often they take formerly trafficked women and place them in local shelters, where they stay for up to three years—without being able to leave—learning marketable skills, such as tailoring or makeup artistry. Gupta says that not enough efforts are made to ensure that women can return home safe.
“There is a huge social stigma around sex itself,” Gupta said. The result is that women who escape sex trafficking struggle to reintegrate back home because their families and neighbours view them as “fallen women.” The most effective campaigns work with families so they can learn that sexual exploitation isn’t a woman’s fault.
“So-called First World countries are completely oblivious to these realities,” he said.
Fatima, a Bangladeshi woman, immigrated to Saudi Arabia to become a maid. She lost her home to Cyclone Sidr in 2007, a Category 5 cyclone which claimed the lives of thousands. While she wasn’t sexually trafficked, she was routinely abused by her employers—groped and hit. She said she knows women who’ve ended up in the sex trade following Cylcone Sidr, or similar crises, often lured by “middlemen” promising them work as beauticians. Fatima stated that they were sent to cities in South Asian nations, including India, Thailand and Nepal.
“We need to raise awareness because most of the time the families don’t know what human and sex trafficking are and how they should protect themselves or their children,” said Fatima, who has seen these problems play out in her own community. She added that shame around sex has made it difficult for survivors who’ve returned home to reintegrate.
Fatima stated that one way governments can help is to equip women and girls with skills they can use in order to earn a living.
A recent report by the International Institute for Environment and Development revealed that modern slavery is becoming more severe due to climate change. Sometimes, this includes forced sexual exploitation. The most at-risk are women, children, as well as the poorest of people.
“Natural disasters are the main reasons for all of my disasters in life.”
“Climate and development policymakers and planners urgently need to recognize that millions of people displaced by climate change are being, and will be, exposed to slavery in the coming decades,” the report says.
The survivors who spoke with VICE World News all said they’re worried sex trafficking will increase with disasters. They want sufficient government support to ensure they can live in their communities without fear of being exploited.
Seema feels that staying in her West Bengal village allows her to stay connected with her social circle. She stated that it was financially impossible to move elsewhere.
“I have no money to buy land or construct my own house elsewhere,” Seema said.
The world is just beginning to learn how to help climate refugees. Even the most wealthy countries are not equipped to handle internal migrants, who have been displaced by. wildfires floods. But there’s hope: In a global first earlier this year, a man who was forced out of Bangladesh because of poor environmental conditions that affect his health won the right to settle in France—with the French court acknowledging that pollution played a major role in its decision. As more people are forced to leave their homes due to the climate crisis, this decision could be a precedent.
Fatima, who is now back in Bangladesh with family members after her husband took another loan for her, stated that she will never leave her village.
“It’s very hard, very hard,” Fatima said. “Natural disasters are the main reasons for all of my disasters in life. If I had another option in my area, I would never plan to go out or migrate.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.
This story is part of a Covering Climate Now reporting series on climate migration called “Flight for Their Lives.” CCNow is a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.