How the lack of protection for persons displaced by climate change increases their vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking

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    Post by: Jenna Klein, J.D. Candidate at the School of Law, University of California, Berkeley. She can be reached at

    The effects of global climate change have escalated at an alarming rate over recent years, devastating entire regions with floods, droughts or storms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that an increased frequency and scale of the impacts of climate change may affect population movements by transforming local areas into increasingly marginal places with limited livelihood opportunities.[i] Further, natural hazards disproportionately impact the developing world, as highlighted in the UN Chronicle: “The poorer the community, the greater its vulnerability to natural disasters and the more difficult its recovery.”[ii]

    The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS: Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam) is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, given its unique geography[iii] and the importance of weather-dependent industries, such as agriculture, to people’s lives. The region is already experiencing extreme climate shifts and natural hazards with increasing regularity and magnitude. Studies estimate that several million people living along the GMS coastlines alone will be displaced in the event of a one-meter rise in sea levels.[iv]

    Whilst increasing population displacement due to climate change is widely expected in the coming years,[v] neither the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), nor the subsequent Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement specifically address the need for assisting and protecting those directly or indirectly affected.[vi] Recent efforts including the High-Level Plenary Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants call for new global compacts to deal with future large population movements and to better accommodate refugees and displaced persons,[vii] however the international legal frameworks in place fail to protect individuals moving both domestically as well as transnationally due to the effects of climate change.

    Those migrating within their country of residence are currently protected by international human rights law, if voluntary, and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, if forcibly displaced[viii] – although the latter remains a soft law document and is difficult to enforce without corresponding national policies.[ix] In addition, individuals who are displaced across borders are covered by two principal international legal mechanisms: international human rights law and the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (hereafter referred to as ‘refugee convention’), with its 1967 Protocol.

    However, neither affords sufficient legal protection for individuals displaced due to the effects of climate change. While international human rights law provides certain protections to all human beings, it does not entitle anyone to admission or stay in another country.[x] Further, the current definition of ‘refugee’ in international law is extremely narrow, covering only those fleeing their country of origin for fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.[xi]

    Natural hazards cause instability in affected countries, often weakening the rule of law and causing populations to search for migratory alternatives. However, those displaced are commonly unable to access legal migration channels to other countries and find themselves forced to move and take up work elsewhere irregularly. This reduces their bargaining power vis-à-vis recruiters and employers, and provides a conducive environment for human traffickers to act with impunity.[xii] The steadily increasing duration of displacement – currently averaging 17 years – has further increased the desperation and vulnerabilities among affected communities.[xiii]

    Studies have documented a correlation between disasters and incidences of human trafficking,[xiv] and that “an increase in the gravity of physical harm caused by disasters increases the likelihood of a country being a source of trafficking victims.”[xv] In other words, as climate change continues to increase the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards in vulnerable regions such as the GMS, the prevalence of human trafficking may similarly spike. Thus, the need for stronger international legal frameworks to protect individuals displaced (trans-)nationally by the effects of climate change is crucial not only to safeguard broader human development gains but also to better prevent human trafficking and exploitation from occurring.










    [x] Ibid.

    [xi] Ibid.




    [xv] Ibid.

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