Former trafficked child reveals how climate change is driving modern slavery

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The impact of rising temperatures on trafficking has been overlooked – but its effects are devastating

Former trafficked child reveals how climate change is driving modern slavery
Child victims of trafficking and bounded labour
Rates of child slavery are going up in Ghana for the first time in decades, driven by an unlikely phenomenon CREDIT: Kevin Frayer/AP

At the age of six, I was sold by my father as a slave to fishermen on Lake Volta, which stretches from the middle of Ghana to its southernmost edge. I was the youngest of 12. Most of my siblings had already been given away to work. 

I was just the next in line, spending 17 hours out on the boats before working throughout the dead of night, without sleep, to mend the fishing nets. I ate just once a day. Of the five children I was trafficked with, half died due to the abuse and appalling conditions we lived in.

I was 13 when I finally escaped, returned to my hometown, and resolved that other children in Ghana would be spared the same fate. Unable to read or write as I had been hauled out of primary school so young, I enrolled myself in school, and later went on to study at the University of Ghana before working in banking. 

It was all with a bigger goal in mind: to set up Challenging Heights, an anti-trafficking charity, which I did almost 20 years ago. Our goal was to eradicate child slavery by 2022 – which was ambitious but, we hoped, achievable. 

The reality has proved far harsher: rates of child slavery are going up in Ghana for the first time in decades, a phenomenon being driven in part by climate change. 

James delivering a speech during the 2017 world day against the trafficking of persons
James delivering a speech during the 2017 world day against the trafficking of persons

The impact of rising temperatures on trafficking has been overlooked, but its effects are devastating. 

Rural communities are now facing greater challenges than ever before, like in the north of Ghana, which has this year seen just a single rainfall season followed by a long dry period. This has made the farming season even shorter, leaving most people unemployed – and desperately poor – for the majority of the year. 


Rivers have dried out, obliterating the fishing trade that employs 2.7 million people and makes the country £425 million per year. The dwindling fish stock has stripped people of their livelihood and food, making them more likely to take dangerous decisions. 

Falling deeper into slavery

Families sell their children into marriage and to labour agents, who act as middlemen between them and exploitative businessmen. Parents are told that their children will be working in stable, better-paid jobs away from their village. But this is a lie, and often a gateway to prostitution and trafficking

According to estimates from the World Bank, issues such as crop failure and water scarcity will create 143 million climate migrants by 2050. It’s a fate no country can afford; particularly not Ghana, where there are currently 133,000 people enslaved. We expect more to fall into slavery as the impacts of the climate catastrophe unfold.

After years of dealing with problems we felt that we understood, climate change has been a shock to us, reversing the progress we have worked hard for. We have rescued 250 children already this year, when just a few years ago, the annual number would have been half that. 

James interacting with the Australian High Commission Staff during their visit to the Challenging Heights Hovde House Recovery Centre.jpg
James with Australian high commission staff during their visit to the Challenging Heights recovery centre

We are also now seeing people being trafficked to the Ivory Coast (where we recently rescued 16 children), Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. Previously, the majority of trafficking we sought to tackle happened within Ghana only.

Along with Covid-19, which has worsened the situation by shredding families’ income and pushing parents into decisions that nobody should have to make, the outlook is not good.

The climate issues we are facing are overwhelming, and feel all the more unjust given that Ghana emits just 0.52 tonnes of carbon per capita, compared to the average American’s 14.24 tonnes. 

A major theme of discussion at Cop27 over the past week has been the notion of climate reparations, and whether the countries who do the most harm to the planet should pay the countries who endure natural disasters as a result. 

The World Bank found that the majority of climate migrants will come from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, making us disproportionately affected by disasters that simply are not our fault. 

Breakout Box

‘I was shut in an iron box and had hot oil thrown at me’

The journey was gruelling. For 24 hours, Hardeep* was curled up inside a pitch-black, airless iron box, hidden inside a lorry on a ferry destined for Dover. Hardeep survived the journey, but soon after his arrival in Britain he was taken to work in a restaurant in the midlands, enduring long hours and physical, verbal and psychological abuse. Here, he describes his life of slavery in Britain.

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We should be blunt about the fact that industrialised countries must not only pay more to those who have been damaged but take more responsibility for what is happening as a result of their actions. The situation is dire and, if anything, the figures underestimate the problem we are facing.

It’s not just about giving money, however. There is also the matter of monitoring how these funds are used and protecting them from corruption. 

Last week, the World Bank committed to releasing up to $50 million to help Ghana fight carbon dioxide emissions. That sounds impressive on paper but it is not enough: we need systems in place to check that the trees are being planted as they should be, that they are growing, and that every penny is accounted for. Without that, pledges of help lose all meaning.

Until there is more accountability – both from the countries emitting the most carbon and those presiding over environmental offset schemes – the climate-induced slavery catastrophe will only worsen.

Challenging Heights has set a new goal – which is again, ambitious – of eradicating child slavery in Ghana within three years. I want to believe that we’ll reach our target this time. But I fear that, if things stay as they are, the problem will only worsen still.

  • As told to Charlotte Lytton

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