The link between natural disasters, crises, and human trafficking

Hurricane Irma’s rampage through the eastern Caribbean all but decimated St. Martin, Barbuda, and several other islands. Patching back the region’s shattered infrastructure and ruined lives is sure to exact years of misery. That’s an ideal preying ground for human traffickers. Disasters — both natural and man-made — breed chaos, desperation, and displacement. That creates a perfect storm of limited oversight and deplorable living conditions that lure vulnerable people to fraudulent promises of safety and security, according to “Freedom’s Journey: Understanding Human Trafficking,” from the MSW@USC. Human trafficking is “a form of modern-day slavery” that uses force, coercion or fraud to compel someone to provide labor or commercial sex. And when a crisis strikes, traffickers can descend as quickly as aid workers:

  • In the ruins of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and again after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, traffickers pounced on orphans for illegal adoptions and pushed impoverished children to work as servants for private families, according to the U.S. Department of State.
  • Human exploitation also surged amid the 2011 drought and famine in the Horn of Africa and after the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.
  • The 2004 Indonesian tsunami left 35,000 children without one or both parents. To guard against predators, authorities in Aceh banned children from leaving the province unless they were with a verifiable family member.

Trafficking in humans is a $150 billion global industry. It’s second only to the drug trade in illicit profits, the United Nations estimatesNearly 80 percent of cases involve sexual exploitation and prostitution, mostly of women and children. Much of the rest comes from forced labor, as when workers are held hostage by debt to their employers or by outright slavery. Smaller numbers of victims forcibly become beggars, child soldiers, or organ donors. In 2012, criminals trafficked 21 million people worldwide for various purposes, according to the article from the MSW@USC. It’s a scourge whose victims hide or live in every corner of the world, including in the United States and the European Union. Central and southeastern Europe and several former Soviet republics harbor the highest concentration of victims. Men, women, and children become ripe for abuse by traffickers through a host of root causes. Among them are poverty, lack of education, political instability, and discrimination. Catastrophes and crises can upend their already-tenuous lives. Sometimes, the exploiters are the very authorities who are supposed to be the protectors. In July, a Thai court convicted five dozen people, including a high-ranking Thai Army officer, of human trafficking and other offenses. Thai civilian and military officials helped run a smuggling ring that imprisoned and extorted money from ethnic Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar. A spike in human trafficking cases, specifically of children, shouldn’t be taken as an unavoidable feature of political or natural upheaval, a recent column in The Conversation argued. To combat it will require international coordination to target vulnerable children and their communities. Only with awareness and advocacy — such as keeping students in schools and providing shelter, legal aid, and counseling to families — will the world be ready to respond when the next disaster hits.


Learn more about modern-day slavery by visiting the MSW@USC’s Guide to Understanding Human Trafficking, created by the online msw program at the University of Southern California.