The social impacts of climate change: migration and modern slavery risks in Ghana

Climate change is more than an environmental issue; it has far-reaching social consequences that affect communities worldwide. Chiara Soletti, Climate Change Manager, and Marta Medusa, Africa Programme Officer, explore how these changes are fuelling migration patterns in Ghana and increasing risks of modern slavery and exploitation.

Fishing boats on the shore in West Africa
Fishing boats in West Africa. Photo by Jessica Turner.

In Ghana, climate change is already having a severe impact on the weather in the north of the country and the sea waters and marine ecosystems in the south. Together, these impacts of climate change are profoundly impacting the livelihoods and well-being of the local population.

For the past three years, we have been working with local partners in Ghana, Challenging Heights and LAWA to support child domestic workers and, through our work, have found indications that climate impacts play a role in increasing a child’s vulnerability to modern slavery. These findings are supported by existing academic research on climate impacts on the country. They should inform climate policies at every level to ensure effective preventative measures in climate adaptation and human rights protection.

Throughout our work, we found a strong indication of the unmissable link between vulnerability to modern slavery and the impact of climate change being experienced in Ghana. The social effects of climate change cannot be ignored any longer.

Green trees, fields and plants in Ghana
Photo by Evans Amoah on Unsplash

What did we find?

Severe droughts and migration patterns in north Ghana

Drastic changes in rain patterns, temperatures and extreme weather, all impact of climate change, are having adverse effects on the agricultural sector and increasing food insecurity. The impact on local people is so pervasive that young men often move south to the country’s forest zone, where the soil is more suitable for agriculture, and they can pursue work as farm labourers. Meanwhile, young women migrate to major cities in the south to work as Kayayei, transporting goods to and from the market, under debt bondage – a form of modern slavery where workers are exploited to pay off a debt.

Climate impact on marine ecosystems and livelihood in south Ghana

The impacts of climate change and the adverse effects of human activity place the marine ecosystem under extreme stress. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices (including using nets with incorrect mesh sizes, dynamite, poisons, and light for fishing) have put immense pressure on marine life. Plastic pollution is another primary concern, affecting the health of marine ecosystems and the species that rely on them.

Climate change exacerbates these challenges and impacts the people who depend on the water and marine life. The steady rise in C02 emissions threatens marine biodiversity, altering the chemistry of the ocean and lakes. Many of the fish that coastal communities have historically relied on for fishing (including snappers, Congo dentex and groupers) are highly sensitive to these impacts, and these changes are making it harder to fish. Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Ghana’s coastal strip communities, which represent 25% of the country’s population.

Small-scale fishing, predominantly by small businesses, plays a significant role in the Ghanaian economy. 1.5 to 2 million people in Ghana rely on this industry, many of whom have limited formal education. Recent reports suggest declining trends in artisanal fish landings, putting additional pressure on the food security and way of life for the people of Ghana.

For the people who rely on the water, their future is at risk.

Children’s vulnerabilities to abuse and exploitation

One of the most concerning social impacts of climate change in Ghana is the vulnerability of children to abuse and economic exploitation. Preliminary findings from ongoing research from Anti-Slavery International, with our partners Challenging Heights and LAWA, show that climate-related stressors, such as deteriorated marine ecosystems and declining incomes for communities dependent on fisheries, are critical factors influencing the vulnerability of children to abuse and exploitation.

Economic hardship due to declining income from fisheries appears to push adults to migrate towards urban centres or neighbouring Ivory Coast and Nigeria, placing their children with relatives or caregivers. These caregivers often struggle with financial challenges, making it difficult to provide adequate care for the children. Some of the children report being engaged in highly hazardous work and facing emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their informal foster carers.

Families also resort to sending older children away to work, frequently through the involvement of intermediaries. Children are recruited for work in Lake Volta’s fishing industry, with girls generally performing work onshore, such as preparing the fish for markets, while boys tend to be recruited for deep diving to untangle fishing nets.

Without adequate support to families to protect their livelihoods, the risks for children will increase.

What should be done?

A deeper understanding of how climate change interacts with socio-economic and cultural factors at local, national, and global levels is essential to identifying targeted preventative measures to ensure human rights protection, including risks of modern slavery. Without this, more people will not have the support needed to adapt safely to the impacts of climate change, facing unbearable consequences for their lives. Currently, at the national level, climate-induced changes as drivers of bonded labour, child labour and slavery are not addressed in Ghana’s National Climate Change Policy. It highlights the need for comprehensive policies and research that consider both the environmental and social dimensions of climate change and how they interact.

The same is needed at the international level. We urgently need to see adaptive measures – that take account of human rights and other social and environmental safeguards – included in multilateral discussions and policies on climate change and sustainable development. It is alarming that the next UN Climate Talks are about to start (UNFCCC COP28), yet the text on the Loss and Damage Fund lacks clear financial commitment and human rights provisions in the objectives and purpose of the Fund. This is a disappointing result considering the urgency of the climate breakdown that risks creating a “tool” with a limited approach to the complex technical and social challenges that climate impacts make.

For us, we will continue to seek out when climate change is exacerbating a vulnerability to modern slavery, work with locally led organisations to mitigate these risks and take this evidence into international forums until we achieve a world free from slavery.

Back to top Top