Climate change has created a new generation of sex-trafficking victims

May 02, 2017, 04:00 PM

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, it was, at the time, the strongest storm in history ever to make landfall. A “super typhoon” with wind speeds that reached 196 miles per hour, Haiyan displaced more than 4 million people and nearly wiped out the coastal city of Tacloban. Residents like Kristine still recall the smell of death that floated on the sea breeze and permeated streets. “Too many people died,” Kristine says, somberly. But the storm, known locally as Yolanda, was just the beginning of the painful journey she was about to take. After the skies cleared, a second humanitarian disaster unfolded in the Tacloban Astrodome, a sports arena where thousands took shelter. An underground economy took root as women and girls were sold for food and scarce aid supplies, or trafficked into forced labor and sex work by recruiters offering jobs and scholarships. Kristine says she was sold to men every night; some of the men were foreign-aid workers, she believes. The men raped her, and took graphic pictures and videos. Kristine was 13.

As severe storms and rising sea levels wear down coastal regions, women and girls are at ever-greater risk. Climate change is a new push factor for human trafficking; its effects destroy livelihoods and place women and children in post-catastrophe situations that traffickers exploit. The Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, which scientists have linked to an increased frequency and severity of extreme-weather events like Haiyan. The country consistently ranks within the top five nations most prone to extreme weather and natural disasters. It’s getting worse; temperatures have been recorded at the highest levels in history in recent years, and five of the 10 deadliest storms to ever hit the country have taken place since 2006. The Eastern Visayas, of which Tacloban is the largest city, is often ground zero for the typhoons that make landfall in the Philippines.

The destination for many of those trafficked out of the Eastern Visayas is Angeles City, the sex-tourism capital of the Philippines about 600 miles to the north. Wendy, 25, who grew up in the Eastern Visayas, worked as a “bar girl” at Club Atlantis on Angeles’ notorious Fields Avenue—a red light district that sprouted to serve men stationed at Clark Air Base, an American base that operated from the early 1900s, when the Philippines was a US colony, until the mid-1990s. Today, Fields is a few blocks lined with bars, neon lights, and foreigners—mostly men from the US, Europe, and Australia—where girls dance on stages in bikinis or less. Customers can buy “ladies’ drinks” to spend time with the girls of their choice, or they can pay a “bar fine” to take a girl out for the night.

Wendy was already in Angeles when Haiyan hit and remembers a wave of people from the Visayas arriving to work on Fields shortly after the storm. “Fields Ave was like Tacloban, everyone was my town-mate,” she says. Her own cousins boarded a flight to Angeles with tickets they believed to be free, given as aid, but once they arrived they were recruited to work in bars.

“When you’re degrading the environment, you’re degrading the status of women,” says Emma Porio, a professor of sociology at Ateneo de Manila University. When families lose their livelihoods and can’t recover between severe weather events, pressure increases on women and children to provide for the family—sometimes at any cost.

Wendy is now in college in the Philippines, after being taken in by Renew Foundation, an NGO that counter-recruits bar girls and provides housing and other services. She and Nina say their stories are typical of many of the girls who work in Angeles City or who were trafficked into prostitution and domestic work as nannies and maids across the country. Social workers with the Department of Social Welfare and Development in the Eastern Visayas reported an increase in the number of trafficked persons after Haiyan, more than tr...