What Does Earth Day Have To Do With Human Trafficking?
by Maryann Mueller
On April 22 people around the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day to demonstrate their support for protecting our environment. But what does protecting our environment have to do with human trafficking?
According to the Office of United States Foreign Disaster Assistance, the total environmental disasters reported each year has been steadily increasing in recent decades, from 78 in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, to 409 in 2019.1 The United Nations Environment program asserts that human trafficking increases by twenty to thirty percent as people are displaced during natural disasters.2
Human trafficking is always an exploitation of vulnerability and those displaced in an instant due to a storm, tsunami, flood etc. are among the most vulnerable populations. The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) warns of significant increases for human trafficking especially among women and children as families are separated and displaced during natural disasters.3
Meanwhile, the United States Government Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons finds that labor trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources appears “even more likely when the yield is obtained or produced in illegal, unregulated, or environmentally harmful ways and in areas where monitoring and legal enforcement are weak.”4
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of temporary guest workers flooded the city, eager for construction jobs. A combination of fractured infrastructures, an overextended law enforcement, the temporary suspension of numerous employee protections in the Gulf Coast region created the perfect storm for exploitation and human trafficking of migrant workers. Human traffickers in New Orleans used the internet to negotiate shelter and relief in exchange for sex after Hurricane Katrina while sex trafficking rings from around the United States relocated to New Orleans to capitalize on devastated areas.5
By the time Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, measures were in place to hopefully curtail trafficking. Prior to the hurricane, the Houston police were concerned enough to speak throughout communities about the dangers of trafficking after a disaster. Signs warning of trafficking were posted on lights at major intersections warning of labor trafficking, while the mayor’s office distributed a press release “to ensure that evacuees understood the nexus between displacement due to natural disasters and human trafficking.”6 At evacuation sites, notes were left each day on each cot in both English and Spanish warning of sex trafficking, while warnings were also displayed in the halls on all monitors and screens.
In the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for an integral ecology that sees the interconnectedness of protecting our environment with human trafficking and all other economic, social, moral and ethical issues. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (139) The protection of the environment is then seen as “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.” (114) As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year, as well as the 5th anniversary of the publication of Laudato Si, let us have the vision to think about comprehensive solutions to both the environmental and the human crises.
- UN Environment Program, 2011
- Human Rights Center of the University of California at Berkeley