In May 2020, when the catastrophic Cyclone Amphan tore through her village in West Bengal, a state in eastern India, Seema took cover in a local shelter while the storm destroyed her home, everything in it, the land she and her family farmed to make a living, even her ID. She watched as her neighbours lost everything too.
One family fell on such hard times that when a man showed up and offered to give their 17-year-old daughter a job in the city, they agreed.
“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. The girl, whom Seema knew personally, is likely still being trafficked today, she said.
A woman and her eroded shelter home near Meghna river in Bangladesh on September 12, 2019. (zakir hossain chowdhury / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Seema, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, sees firsthand how natural disasters are putting women at risk, through her work with Banhanmukti, a survivor collective affiliated with other Indian organizations that support trafficking victims. She said the 17-year-old girl is one of many who are increasingly vulnerable to trafficking because the climate crisis is getting worse, especially in high-risk regions 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.
Around the world, more than 55 million people have already been forced to move from their home communities because of extreme weather, and the climate crisis is expected to displace as many as 1 billion people by 2050. Today, environmental events displace more people than violence and conflict. Women and girls especially bear the brunt of the climate crisis: VICE World News previously reported 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 likely be forced to sell their bodies as they and their families struggle with extreme weather events that leave them with little more than the clothes on their back.
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 2014, some displaced families faced such economic hardships following floods in Fiji that many had their children earn money through sex work at night.
A Reuters report found that one teenager, whose family migrated to the city after their home was washed away by floods, joined the sex industry and became the main provider for her family, earning up to $240 a 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. Severe storms and floods hit almost every year, and at least seven months of the year are marked with 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. Approximately 4.5 million people live in the Indian Sundarbans.
Some women fleeing from natural disasters have chosen to do sex work as a means to make ends meet. But whether sex work can actually be consensual when people have no other options is up for debate. 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 is a lawyer with Calcutta High Court, also in West Bengal. 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.
According to Gupta, a lot of rescue efforts, at times led by Western NGOs, are further isolating 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. But too few efforts go toward ensuring the women can return home safely, Gupta said.
“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 migrated from Bangladesh to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia after she lost her house in 2007 to Cyclone Sidr, a Category 5 cyclone that killed 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. They were sent to cities in South Asian countries, including India, Thailand, and Nepal, Fatima said.
“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.
One way governments can help is by equipping women and girls with skills that they can use to earn a living, Fatima said.
A recent International Institute for Environment and Development report found that the climate crisis is exacerbating modern slavery, which sometimes includes forced sexual exploitation. Women, children, and the poorest people are the most at risk.
“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 said they want adequate government support so that they can keep living in their home communities without fear of exploitation.
For Seema, staying in her West Bengal village means she can stay connected to her social circle. Moving elsewhere also seems financially unfeasible, she said.
“I have no money to buy land or construct my own house elsewhere,” Seema said.
The world is only just starting to figure out how to support climate refugees. Even the richest countries are ill-equipped to deal with their own internal migrants, displaced by wildfires and 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. The decision could set a precedent as more people are forced out of their homes because of the climate crisis.
Fatima, now back with her family in Bangladesh after her husband took another loan to bring her home, said she never wants to permanently migrate from 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.”
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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.