Canary in the Coalmine: Climate crises and trafficking are more connected than one might think

Record-breaking Typhoon Haiyan, which swept across the Central Philippines in November 2013, claimed some 6,000 lives and displaced more than four million people. Yolanda, as it was known locally, decimated entire towns and villages, leaving in its wake fallen trees, toppled power lines, and trails of debris. Nearly six years on, the recovery in Estancia, a coastal town 131 kilometres from the provincial capital of Iloilo City, is still underway, with no end in sight.

One of its residents, Trisha Reyes*, lives with five members of her family in a crowded, damaged house. Since the typhoon, they have attempted to fix the structure with whatever makeshift materials they could find – little by little, piece by piece. Whenever it rains, the house leaks.

Reyes was 11 years old when the storm hit. Estranged from her father (who went to Saudi Arabia to work when she was young before leaving his family for another woman) and raised by a working mother, Reyes often found herself alone, free to wander the neighbourhood. “My parents weren’t around,” she says. “Even if they had been, they couldn’t understand how I felt about myself and this broken family.”

With many livelihoods and homes uprooted, “young people just stayed idly in the streets, waiting for something to happen,” according to Analisa Baclas, a community volunteer who works with the Bidlisiw Foundation, a social development NGO dedicated to helping impoverished urban families in the province. “Often someone from the community would reach out to them, luring them with promises of earning quick money.” That ‘quick money’ usually involves either selling drugs – often a type of methamphetamine colloquially known as shabu – or selling their bodies. For Reyes, it was both.

A male relative of Reyes’s best friend persuaded her – along with a dozen more underage girls – to engage in this underground enterprise. She stopped going to school and, at one point, was earning 6,000 pesos (HK$902) per week, at least four times the weekly minimum wage in the Western Visayas region. “I wasn’t doing it just for myself, but also to support my siblings’ studies,” Reyes explains, somberly.

Reyes eventually left that life behind about three years later, in 2016, not long after she met Baclas on a home visit, where the volunteer encouraged her to join a group of sex trafficking survivors. The criminal network Reyes used to work for no longer operates, to her knowledge, as the war on drugs waged by President Duterte since coming into power in June 2016 led to “many killings” in her town.

While the drug trade and prostitution have had strong footholds in the Philippines for decades, there has been growing evidence linking climate change and natural disasters to human trafficking and gender-based violence across the world.

Various studies worldwide have suggested that disasters exacerbate and further entrench existing social inequalities, including structural forms of vulnerability faced by women and girls. And with the region confronted by natural disasters, which are growing in frequency, complexity and severity due to climate change, the long-term impacts on poverty-stricken countries like the Philippines are unfathomable.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported that, in 2018 alone, weather-related disasters have forced more than 17.2 million people to migrate within their countries. The Philippines was among the 10 worst-affected countries in the world, with 3.8 million new displacements recorded and more than 700,000 projected displaced people during any given year in the future.

“Women and girls suffer higher rates of gender-based violence at such times … In societies where a woman’s role is more submissive or subservient, existing inequalities and vulnerabilities are often made worse,” warned a briefing paper released by IDMC in 2014. During displacement, girls “become easy targets for smugglers, armed groups, and even members of their own family in times of conflict, violence and disaster.”

Economically desperate and lacking access to essential needs, displaced women and children in disaster-struck communities, such as Estancia, often find themselves in vulnerable situations that predatory traffickers and abusers seek to exploit.

In calamity’s wake

In recent years, grim accounts of women and children being sexually assaulted by their male neighbours or foreign relief workers in evacuation camps have also surfaced in post-catastrophe nations, from Nepal and Indonesia to Fiji and Haiti.

However, cases of individuals being lured or coerced into bonded labour, commercial sex, or other forms of exploitative work conditions often go unreported, making them harder to verify, trace, or act upon on a national or regional level.

In 2018, the Global Slavery Index estimated that 784,000 people were living in “modern slavery” in the Philippines, although the reliability and accuracy of this kind of broadly defined data measured on a large-scale has been called into question.

Other reports offer further context and insights: For example, findings from the Philippines’ Education Cluster and Child Protection Working Group assessed after 2012’s Typhoon Bopha (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Pablo) flagged increases in both reported cases of sexual violence – including trafficking – and the number of minors involved in commercial sex work. Another study, conducted a month after Typhoon Haiyan and cited by the same RDC report, revealed that around 15 per cent of affected households surveyed in the Philippines said they noticed an increased risk of human trafficking in their evacuation sites.

To make matters worse, in the aftermath of such disasters, development projects promising to kick-start much-needed local economic recovery can actually become a haven for opportunistic sexual offenders and sex traffickers alike. On the east coast of Iloilo province, for instance, the China-backed Concepcion Power Station was built on the premise of boosting rural infrastructure when it finally became operational in 2016. At least 120 workers from China were reportedly involved in the development of the coal-fired power plant. Among these were the “clients” to whom Gloria Garcia* was “sold.”

“Taxis would pick us up at night from Iloilo City and take us to another nearby town, where we would meet [the clients] at a hotel,” says Garcia, who was 14 years old at the time. Given the economic interest and negative publicity at stake, some suspect the local government ignored these illegal liaisons. “The community knows about it, but people just kept silent, even local government officials,” says Evelina Trinidad, a local community volunteer at the Bidlisiw Foundation.

“The police conducted a raid once, but only the child victims were caught. They were then transferred to the social welfare services,” Trinidad adds. In any case, the full extent of such offences will probably remain unknown.

While underground chains of organised trafficking networks can stretch across regional and national borders, the ways low-level recruiters and brokers operate are often woven through the social fabric of their communities.

Like Reyes, relatives and friends “recruited” Garcia. For two years, she had to be vigilant in keeping her double life a secret. Though Garcia herself has since left the trafficking network, two girls she met during that time are still involved in prostitution. They are the breadwinners in their families and “don’t have many other options,” she says. To date, more than 10 people Garcia knows of have been killed in the drug war. But when asked if she’s afraid of being incriminated, she says with an assured smile: “I’m not afraid. I can defend myself.”

Fragmented responses

The lack of centralised reporting of documented cases of post-disaster human trafficking makes it challenging for researchers to understand the true scale of the issue. “As the patterns of trafficking had already existed before 2014, it’s difficult to link Typhoon Yolanda directly to increased cases of trafficking simply by looking at the data. But I would say, in comparison, the numbers would definitely be larger in areas affected by disasters,” says Lolita Ganapin, executive director of the Bidlisiw Foundation.

According to Ganapin, in the aftermath of a climate disaster, many displaced people and children are likely to join trafficking rings in an effort to escape desperate situations. And amidst the chaos, initiatives dedicated to protecting women and children are often undermined. As Ganapin observes, despite clear guidelines stipulating the need for child protection in evacuation centres (such as establishing child-friendly spaces), they are not always followed and, sometimes, volunteers are not adequately informed. “And then there are cases where the restrooms are located outside the camps, so women and children have to risk walking in the dark just to use the toilets.”

And since affected communities can take years, if not decades, to fully recover, the complex, prolonged dynamic between disasters and the communities’ existing trafficking risks warrants attention from researchers and policymakers alike.

Presently, efforts fall short when it comes to aligning anti-trafficking with disaster relief and climate action, admits Marissa Kokkoros, executive director of Canadian charity Aura Freedom International, at the Women Deliver Conference held in Vancouver in June. A veteran humanitarian worker with first-hand experience on the frontline in post-earthquake Nepal, Kokkoros believes that addressing climate change and human trafficking in a joint effort would greatly benefit vulnerable communities in the long run.

Kokkoros expresses disappointment that human trafficking was not on the main agenda of this year’s conference, which is the world’s largest summit on gender equality: “[The issue] affects women and children disproportionately. Why aren’t we talking about it?”

Back in the Philippines, Ganapin and her team have been working with trafficking victims, many of whom are informal settlers in a squatter area in Mandaue City in Cebu province. After working on HIV/AIDS prevention in the 1990s, Bidlisiw shifted its focus to human trafficking. It gradually became clear that minors were at risk of exploitation and sexual abuse, with the perpetrators being their neighbours, close relatives, and even parents.

However, identifying human trafficking victims can be challenging in the Philippines, due to the ambiguous way it is defined. As Ganapin explains: “While children involved in commercial sex are automatically categorised as trafficking victims by law, the cases for adults are not that clear-cut. Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily mean sex work and vice-versa. Trafficking can take many forms.”

In the Philippines, trafficking is often incorrectly equated with prostitution – long a contentious subject among aid workers and gender advocates. In a report on cases of human trafficking victims from January 2005 to May 2019 by the Field Office VII of Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development, prostitution is filed as a sub-category – alongside “pornography” – under “sexual exploitation”.  This definition may dilute the efforts in addressing the needs of at-risk children and women who are trafficked during displacement. 

Post-trauma recovery

Since the root cause of the issue in the Philippines lies in poverty, there are welfare interventions currently in place specifically designed to help “rehabilitate” survivors in the system. However, the livelihood assistance programme provided by the Department only amounts to 10,000 pesos (HK$1,502) – far from enough to support a family’s short-term expenses or start up an alternative source of income.

However, the psychological consequences of being lured or pressured into commercial sex as a child compounds the challenge. “There’s the behavioural aspect we need to talk about,” says Pamela Uy, Bidlisiw’s deputy executive director. “Most human trafficking victims entered the sex industry at a very early age and went through a great deal of trauma.”

In Bidlisiw’s experience, Uy says recovering victims commonly struggle to hold down a job, even with assistance and referrals, due to the mental and emotional impact, as well as the challenges of adjusting to a more structured lifestyle.  

“That’s why our programme is really invested in the counselling sessions, to help develop their skills and self-value so that they can be ready whenever there are better opportunities.” At the moment, Bidlisiw is also exploring an alternative care system for rehabilitated minors – a pilot programme akin to foster care services.

In light of the global climate crisis, a joint focus on trafficking patterns and disaster-struck communities is an essential part of tackling the wider issue. 
Moving forward, there’s a need for governments and aid organisations worldwide to identify context-appropriate and gender-sensitive measures to help those in need and, at the same time, avoid sidelining broader issues on child abuse, sexual violence, labour trafficking, and human rights in the process.

Gender advocates also believe that anti-trafficking efforts should not work against the premise of women’s empowerment. “While trafficking per se is a major crime, the work being undertaken in the name of combatting trafficking and ‘rescuing’ victims is very problematic,” says Anisha Chugh, deputy executive director of feminist donor organisation Women’s Fund Asia.  Specifically, programmes that aim to provide employment support and skills training should avoid stigmatising women who are, or used to be, involved in commercial sex.

As for Reyes and Garcia, they have both moved on. Reyes, now 17, was two months pregnant at the time of our interview. The Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Asia, and many believe its deeply ingrained, religiously conservative stance on family planning inhibits women breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

But Reyes’s face glows as she talks about her prospective motherhood with the support of her 28-year-old husband. “I can’t say I’m ready, but I’m doing my best for the baby,” she says. “Whatever happened before is a lesson for me and my future family.”

Meanwhile, Garcia, now aged 16, has returned to her studies through the Alternative Learning System, a curriculum designed for young people who have no formal education or have previously dropped out of school like she did. When I asked her if she ever considers herself a victim, she responded by quietly shaking her head: “That’s a past I accept.” In the future, she says she wants to set up a foundation to help people who have gone through similar experiences.

Crystal Chow’s investigation was partially supported by Ariana, as well as International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories, funded by the Secular Society, and the Women Deliver 2019 Conference Media Scholarship programme. Roxanne O. Doron also contributed to the reporting.

*Names have been changed to protect the victims’ privacy.