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Enslaved by disasters

Apr 17, 2009

As climate change induced disasters cause widespread displacement and poverty, women in Bangladesh are increasingly falling prey to trafficking. Migration due to shifting weather patterns and scarcity of resources make women vulnerable to exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence, reports journalist Lisa Friedman.

Satkhira, Bangladesh: The stench of the kerosene lamp fills the space under the roadway overpass. Two girls and their nephew, mother and father make their home here. They sit on a wide slab of concrete covered with a cloth mat that serves as their bed.

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Sheik Zapharula's face glows in the lamplight as he recounts how his 15-year-old daughter was lured off by an admiring stranger who had been coming by the family's rooti store. It was only years later that they learned the worst of it: that within days, the girl had been hustled illegally across the border into India and sold into slavery.

Zapharula's family is among the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. Not only landless and jobless, they lack even the community structure of village life. Aid workers say that such families in Bangladesh and elsewhere are most vulnerable to exploitation. Climate change, meanwhile, threatens to thrust millions more families into desperate conditions.

"The more the climate changes, the more destitute people are becoming"

"The more the climate changes, the more destitute people are becoming," said Ruhul Amin, who runs a nonprofit agency that builds awareness in villages about trafficking and works with local authorities to locate victims and prosecute traffickers.

Poverty stricken

"The poorer people are, the more vulnerable they are to trafficking," Amin explained. "With all this flooding, people can approach poor families to lure women and girls off with visions of a financially secure marriage or a well-paying job in Dhaka's garment industry”.

The Human Security Network, a coalition of 14 countries that meets at the foreign minister level to raise awareness about a range of humanitarian issues, has warned that climate migration could cause still more trafficking.

"Women and children refugees created by natural disasters or conflicts caused by scarcity of resources are exposed to increased risks compared to male refugees," a 2007 Human Security report on climate change found, adding that girls in particular "are vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence."

“Girls younger than 17 fetch the best prices, about 200,000 taka - the equivalent of almost $3,000,” says Amin. Women between the ages of 25 to 40 bring about half of that. Meanwhile, widows - vulnerable in the villages with no man to protect them - are sold for their work skills, as well. They're worth about 60,000 taka, or $870.

Amin described what they know about the trafficking system. Outright kidnappings, he said, are less common than they were a decade ago, and he credits awareness programs like his for that change. But traffickers are just as often people who are known in the villages, and it remains common for young girls to be approached by a seemingly concerned neighbor.

Children from large families make particularly good prey, Amin said. So do the adventurous ones.

No chance of coming back

"They say, 'If you come with us, we can get you a job and you can help your father out.' But as soon as they give their trust to them, then they are trafficked. A lot of women, they have no chance of coming back," he said.

Those middlemen and women might get about 12,000 taka, or $175, for luring a victim. The border smugglers who get the girl to India across one of the region's 30 illegal crossing points, known as ghats, earn more. The predators rarely hit the same village twice.

Sophia, 37, whose home is a thatched hut by the side of the road near Satkhira, said she didn't think much of it when her teenage daughter told her a local woman was encouraging the girl to find a job in Dhaka's thriving garment industry. Sophia told her daughter to put that idea out of her head.

Then one day the girl said she was headed to find work at the fish processing factory and never returned. Sophia said she spent several months frantically trying to track down her daughter. Based on rumours and evidence she uncovered herself, Sophia said she is almost certain the child was taken to India. Local police were little help, and one afternoon a group of men offered her the equivalent of about $29 to stop her inquiries. She refused the money, but said she has run out of leads.

Like Zepharula, Sophia is among the poorest of Bangladesh's poor. Only a blue tarp protects her one-room home from the splatter of mud from the roadway. Her husband drives a van, and Sophia does a variety of odd jobs, from skinning fish at a factory to collecting water hyacinth for livestock feed.

Now she also is caring for her 6-year-old granddaughter. Sophia said that more than once, she has heard the girl say matter-of-factly, "My mother was sold in Bombay for two lakh [200,000 taka]," and it breaks her heart.

"People are vulnerable after disasters or where there's environmental degradation. And traffickers know when people are vulnerable"

Just as scientists say no single storm can be attributed to climate change, aid workers say it is nearly impossible to connect any single incident of exploitation to environmental degradation. But there is widespread agreement that changing weather patterns and increases in natural disasters already are causing upheaval among the world's poorest communities.

Koko Warner, a leading climate migration researcher at the UN University, said a recent study of environmentally induced migration in 22 countries found strong evidence of increased trafficking in Vietnam and Ghana, as well.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross has estimated that about 50 million people will have fled their homes for environmental and climate reasons by 2010, putting themselves at increased risk of exploitation.

"It's just vulnerability," Warner said. "People are vulnerable after disasters or where there's environmental degradation. And traffickers know when people are vulnerable."

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