Human Trafficking and Natural Disasters
Hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes are just a few examples of natural disasters that impact the Greater New Orleans area. In the wake of natural disasters, survivors of the natural devastation may face another danger: human trafficking. Disasters can cause people to lose their jobs, homes, livelihoods, communities, support systems, and stability. Desperation caused by destruction can force people to take offers that they wouldn't usually take: jobs that seem too good to be true, engaging in work because they feel they have no other choice, working for employers who seem untrustworthy, or taking opportunities that seem potentially dangerous or isolating. Traffickers take advantage of people who are trying to survive in the aftermath of disaster.
Additionally, response from organizations like law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and aid/disaster response organizations may not be running properly to effectively serve everyone affected by disaster. This creates an environment that traffickers can prey upon desperate people without intervention from the justice system.
Following the initial aftermath of the disaster, the rebuilding process can also be a time in which traffickers flourish. A high demand for cheap labor to rebuild, along with limited systems response and suspension of important labor rights protections such as the Davis Beacon Act, can have detrimental consequences for workers. Additionally, natural disasters may destroy community structures and support systems for affected communities, which can lead to longer term vulnerability of the folks most acutely affected by the events.
VULNERABLE PHASES OF A DISASTER
The immediate aftermath of the disaster is a dangerous time for people in impacted communities. During this time, people in affected communities may be desperate to have basic needs met or may be isolated.
The rebuilding period takes place after the initial harm of the disaster has taken place. This can happen over months or years afterward. During this time, rebuilding efforts within affected communities can lead to trafficking of both affected communities and people brought into the community to assist rebuilding efforts.
LESSONS LEARNED: HURRICANE KATRINA
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast as a Category 5 storm. Across the Gulf Coast, neighborhoods flooded, homes and structures were destroyed, and communities were stranded with limited support. More than 1 million people were displaced from their homes in the wake of the disaster.
According to The Greater New Orleans Data Center:
At their peak, hurricane evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people, and FEMA trailers housed at least 114,000 households
Katrina damaged more than a million housing units in the Gulf Coast region- about half of these damaged units were located in Louisiana
In New Orleans alone, 134,000 housing units — 70% of all occupied units — suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding
Many of the people who were unable to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina were members of already vulnerable and marginalized community, including impoverished, isolated, elderly, and disabled people. Following the disaster, individuals who remained during the hurricane experienced displacement from their homes, loss or distance from loved ones, and loss of jobs and other stabilizing components of life. All of these factors created a large population of vulnerable people in the immediate aftermath of the disasters.
Law enforcement and regulatory agencies were overwhelmed with basic logistical issues that made it difficult to protect citizens from exploitation. Flooded office buildings, disrupted communication, limited transportation options, and other logistical problems made it difficult to get to communities at risk of trafficking. Agencies were so overwhelmed by the immediate needs of the community that they were unable to serve everyone seeking support. In the wake of the storm, the Department of Labor had to significantly decrease the number of investigations it conducted (from 70 the year before Katrina to 33 the year after). As a result, traffickers took advantage of the people affected by the hurricane.
In the rebuilding period following Katrina, other vulnerabilities emerged. Many people who evacuated for the hurricane were unable or unwilling to return. As a result, there were severe labor shortages to help with the rebuilding process. The widespread damage to the state’s infrastructure led to a major demand for workers to rebuild, which exacerbated the labor shortage issue. The federal government suspended key worker protections like the Davis-Beacon Act, job safety and health standards, and requirements for employers to confirm employee identification. This led to a new population of individuals vulnerable: migrant guest workers and visa holders. Exploitative employers took advantage of the lack of oversight of visa programs, the diminished capacity of the Department of Labor and other regulatory agencies, and the vulnerability of the foreign guestworkers.
Signal International Case
The Signal International Case is one of the largest labor trafficking cases in American history. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast in 2005, hundreds of Indian men traveled to the gulf coast to work as welders and pipe fitters on damaged oil rigs, lured by the promise of permanent US residency and a good job with Signal International.
The workers were required to pay $10,000 each to recruiters, in return for residency documents for themselves and families as well as good paying work. Signal did not make good on those promises. The victims were held in debt bondage – forced to pay over $1000 a month per person to live in guarded labor camps where up to 24 people lived in 1800 sq foot camps. Signal, as well as an Indian labor recruiter, and a New Orleans lawyer were found guilty of labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination. The victims were award $14 million dollars.
Signal International acknowledged it was “wrong in failing to ensure that the guest workers were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved” as they worked for the company repairing damaged oil rigs and related Gulf Coast facilities in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Post-Katrina Trafficking Response
Civil rights groups and worker advocacy groups were central to addressing the needs of trafficked guestworkers in the rebuilding period after Katrina. The National Guestworker Alliance and Southern Poverty Law Center are examples of key entities supporting guest workers who experienced human trafficking.
In 2006, a group of professionals began to come together post-Katrina to discuss exploitation cases they were seeing in the Greater New Orleans community. Prosecutors, services providers, and law enforcement started meeting regularly at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to discuss cases they were seeing in which people were forced, tricked, or psychologically controlled to provide commercial sex or labor services. Over time, this collaborative grew and began to expand its response to trafficking in the Greater New Orleans region. This group eventually because the New Orleans Human Trafficking Working Group in 2010, and in 2015 received U.S. Department of Justice grant funding to become the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force.
PREVENTION OF TRAFFICKING POST-DISASTER
Prevention of human trafficking post-disaster is possible. Here are several examples of prevention & awareness activities local communities can engage in prior to and following a disaster:
“Know Your Rights” training for workers and at-risk communities
Spreading awareness of services and resources available for affected populations
Training of first responders, shelter staff, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies
Posters, public service announcements, and other awareness materials in places where affected communities congregate
Partnerships between disaster response organizations, worker rights organizations, and direct service organizations and anti-trafficking agencies
Interested in learning more about the intersection between natural disasters and human trafficking? Here are some resources.
Book: Human Trafficking Around the World, “Chapter 1: United States”. Stephanie Hepburn & Rita Simon (2013)
Report: “Addressing Human Trafficking and Exploitation in Times of Crisis” IOM (2015).
Article: “Harvey, Irma, and Maria: Natural Disasters and Human Trafficking” Huffington Post Stephanie Hepburn (2017).
Webinar: HHS Region II webinar “Identifying Risk Factors for Human Trafficking After Natural Disasters” (2018)
Article: “Indian Workers Awarded $14M In Post-Hurricane Katrina Trafficking Case” Vice, Alice Speri (2015)