Human Trafficking, Haiti & the Environment

Haiti has a significant problem with human trafficking of children for forced domestic labor, which is compounded by natural disasters like last week's earthquake.
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By Jennifer Kimball

In a recent post for the Human Trafficking Project, I wrote that the impact of natural disasters and environmental degradation on slavery and human rights cannot be ignored. This issue is particularly pressing in light of the tragic events in Haiti resulting from a 7.0 earthquake. Haiti already faced extreme hardships and poverty, making the devastation wrought by the earthquake even greater.

Haiti also has a significant problem with trafficking of children called restaveks for forced domestic labor, often in situations of extreme abuse and neglect. Men, women, and children are trafficked to, through, and from Haiti for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Haiti is considered a special case in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report, for the "fourth consecutive year as the new government formed in September 2008 has not yet been able to address the significant challenges facing the country, including human trafficking."

Sadly, the devastation often impacts the most vulnerable, leaving them even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. A recent report from SOS Children's Villages points out that there is a correlation between humanitarian crises and spikes in sexual violence against women. In light of the number of orphaned children and displaced people, many organizations including UNICEF are concerned about a potential increase in trafficking in persons in the current chaos.

In December, the world watched the progress of the Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference. While the conference may not have been front and center in the anti-trafficking community, the impact of environmental degradation on slavery and human rights cannot be ignored.

Environmental catastrophes, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to a cyclone in Myanmar, wreak incredible damage on people's lives. Sadly, the devastation often impacts the most vulnerable, leaving them even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. According to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, while it is hard to predict the extent of the consequences of climate change, we can expect more droughts, more flooding, and increased incidence of extreme weather, all of which could negatively impact people's lives in extreme ways.

According to Linking Human Rights and the Environment, by Romina Picolotti and Jorge Daniel Taillant, "victims of environmental degradation tend to belong to more vulnerable sectors of society - racial and ethnic minorities and the poor - who regularly carry a disproportionate burden of [human rights] abuse. Increasingly, many basic human rights are being placed at risk, as the right to health affected by contamination of resources, or the right to property and culture comprised by commercial intrusion into indigenous lands." Such people are also extremely vulnerable to trafficking.

In The Slave Next Door, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter make the link between the environment and human trafficking even more explicit with a slightly different perspective. In their discussion of slavery and consumer goods, they point out that trafficking victims are often forced to contribute to environmental degradation to produce products. Bales and Soodalter describe the horrific conditions endured by slaves in charcoal camps in Brazil: "slaves suffer burns and cuts, the heat is ferocious, and their flesh wastes away. . . Unknowingly, the US consumer provides the incentive for this destruction of both human life and the environment" (146).

A report entitled Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States by the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows another point of intersection between environmental issues and human trafficking. They highlight a trafficking case where a company exploited guestworkers from India to fill hotel positions vacated by people who evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. Threatened with massive "debts" and unable to leave their employee because of visa restrictions, they were ripe for exploitation.

Environmental degradation and slavery exist in a vicious cycle where people can be trafficked for labor that harms the environment or as the result of environmental issues, and where such environmental degradation places additional burdens on those who are already the most vulnerable to trafficking. Ending slavery and promoting human rights will require addressing this cycle.

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