Human Trafficking in the Wake of Natural Disaster: Exploring a Clandestine Phenomenon

Written by Chris Weeks

January 25, 2017

Human Trafficking in the Wake of Natural Disaster

Fears about human trafficking following natural disasters form a regularly-heard refrain, with politicians, aid workers or the media warning that affected populations are left vulnerable to exploitation in the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis or typhoons.

Such claims make good theoretical sense. Factors that heighten vulnerability to human trafficking – such as breakdown of family units, economic desperation, and migration to already overcrowded cities – are known to increase after a natural disaster. In our mind’s eye, we’re left with a post-disaster picture of decimated and chaotic communities where law and order and the usual protections have broken down, with traffickers lurking at the sidelines eager to prey on a ready supply of potential victims at their weakest moment.

There are certainly documented cases of post-disaster trafficking – though these are far fewer than might be expected. Typhoon Haiyan (local mother Yolanda), for example, claimed more than 7,000 lives and displaced millions when it struck the Philippines in November 2013. Inevitably, claims about human trafficking surfaced within days. Yet official reports suggest the country’s Department for Justice was investigating just two suspected cases of typhoon-related trafficking.

Why the discrepancy, therefore, between such grand claims and the actual reported numbers?

Blurred Definitions

One explanation is that human trafficking, by its very nature, is clandestine. Even people who have escaped this situation may be reluctant to report the crime for fear of retribution or stigma. This raises a host of difficulties for law enforcers – and for the researcher setting out to prove how such vulnerability to exploitation can be heightened following a natural disaster.

A further stumbling block is the blurred definition of trafficking itself which is clearly set out by UN protocol, yet so often used vaguely or inaccurately. All of this suggests that any attempt to collate statistics on human trafficking, gathered from different sources using different definitions, will be futile.

Nonetheless, despite these uncertainties, it is clear the phenomenon does take place – and will continue to do so, as traffickers commit cross-border crimes with apparent impunity. 

Migration Morphs into Trafficking

The example of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is an interesting case to start unravelling the link between migration, trafficking and natural disasters. The country is one of the most disaster-prone in the world, experiencing an average of 20 typhoons a year – most recently, Typhoon Nock-Ten (local mother Nina) which hit the country on Christmas Day 2016.

Furthermore, migration – which can morph into human trafficking when the migrant is exploited – is already a tried and tested coping mechanism. A tenth of the Philippines’ population is abroad at any one time often in menial, solitary jobs behind closed doors which can further increase the chance of exploitation.

There are shelters in the Philippines full of people who have experienced human trafficking. Many of them, according to those running the shelters, state that disaster-induced displacement prompted a chain of events that ultimately led to trafficking.

A further risk factor in the Philippines is the so-called ‘fly now, pay later’ system. Free flights and accommodation can be offered up-front by the migrant broker, with promises that the migrant can pay off this debt through their earnings. Myriad posters (example in the attached photo) offering such opportunities sprung up after Typhoon Haiyan. This flips power instantly into the hands of migrant brokers, with the migrant having few funds or resources to escape the clutch of their employers if things go awry.

Investigating a Link

Investigating and proving the link between disaster and trafficking is therefore fraught with challenges – though not insurmountable ones. Many people have lived through the experience, and can offer a valuable insight into patterns of behaviour and migration risk-taking that change following disaster.

This is ultimately an inquiry into the spectre of modern day slavery, and how exploitative employers, corruption and a globalised world with closed borders – which pushes people out of poor countries and pulls them into rich ones with a demand for cheap labour – creates a perfect storm of vulnerability and desperation for those worst affected when disaster strikes.

Chris Weeks is studying a part-time PhD in Development Studies at London’s SOAS University. He works for an international aid agency and was deployed to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. Research interests include culture of migration, human trafficking and slavery, and natural disasters.

1: Scene of widespread destruction in Tacloban City (credit: Chris Weeks)
2: Evacuation flights from Tacloban City after Haiyan (credit: Chris Weeks)
3: One of the many ‘fly now, pay later’ recruitment posters which appeared in Leyte Island following Typhoon Haiyan (credit: Chris Weeks)