Published On: June 23, 2023

There is alarming evidence of modern slavery occurring in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the Pacific Islands. Fuelled by widespread poverty, migration, and the abuse of cultural practices, these vulnerabilities are likely to increase as climate change exacerbates poverty and migration.

Research by the Walk Free Foundation in 2020 reviewed the nature of slavery across the region, drawing on grassroots knowledge in eight countries in the Pacific region, including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

In all eight countries, at least one, but often several forms of modern slavery were identified, including forced labour, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced marriage.

According to senior researcher Elise Gordon, the report shines a light on some troubling trends in the region.

“There is a perfect storm of conditions which we expect will lead to increased vulnerability to modern slavery in the Pacific region. This is not happening on the other side of the globe; it is right here in Australia and on Australia’s doorstep,” Ms Gordon said.

“We have heard reports of signs of modern slavery among migrant workers in the construction industry, stemming from increasing foreign investment in Pacific Island communities. Also fishing, a major industry in the region, brings with it a poor track record as being notorious for forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation.

“Pacific island communities are also some of the worst impacted by climate change. Natural disasters, which damage lives and livelihoods, impede the development of these countries, and rising water levels exacerbate poverty and drive migration.

“Climate-induced displacement must be met with greater opportunities for seasonal and permanent migration, but not at the expense of strong protections in both labour sending and receiving countries that ensure workers and their families do not end up exploited or in modern slavery.

 “Our research has also indicated that traditional views of the role of women, girls and children could be contributing to increased vulnerability to forced and underage marriage, forced sexual exploitation, and commercial sexual exploitation of children in the region.”

Researchers also found there was very low awareness of the issue and significant gaps in understanding among those best placed to identify victims.

“There is no question the region faces significant challenges, but during the course of our research we have also seen there are people on the ground in the Pacific Islands and in Australia and New Zealand committed to addressing these issues, and I’m confident we can make a difference if we work together on a coordinated response,” Ms Gordon said.

The full report, entitled “Murky waters: A qualitative assessment of modern slavery in the Pacific region” can be viewed here.

Walk Free is a part of the Minderoo Foundation and produces the Global Slavery Index, the world’s most comprehensive study on the prevalence of slavery.

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