Gaps in International Law Surrounding Human Trafficking and Natural Disasters

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Most of the modern world has concerned itself with both the atrocity of human trafficking and the devastation of natural disasters. These events leave human pain and suffering in their wake at outstanding levels. A large international effort to create transnational standards of law has been constructed to mitigate and respond to these catastrophes, however, there is a shocking gap in understanding the connection and correlation between the two. Though international law has made commendable strides toward globally cooperative solutions in the respective areas of human trafficking and natural disasters, little legal action has been crafted to reduce the overlap between these two. Scholars have scratched the surface of this issue, beginning to acknowledge vulnerability natural disasters create that contributes to increased human trafficking, but international law must be further developed to match this ever-increasing cross-section of human suffering.

Human trafficking is a 150-billion-dollar industry that reaches every corner of the world and impacts every country.[1] Generally, human traffickers prey on the most vulnerable and desperate, specifically targeting defenseless young women and children.[2] Characterized by three elements; act, means, and purpose, the ability to execute the act of human trafficking is influenced by a series of factors at the individual, state, trafficker, and international level.[3] The individual factors generally relate to the lack of economic or social opportunities that lead people in poverty to trust traffickers for job opportunities.[4] In contrast, the remaining deal with the opportunity for trafficking at the trafficker, state, and international levels.[5] Natural disasters exacerbate the following factors at every level: victim’s unawareness of potential risk, inadequate social safety nets, inadequate law enforcement, low risk of getting caught, border regulations, and lack of international coordination.[6] Natural disasters further marginalize and perpetuate the vulnerability of the most at-risk people groups. Economic damage caused by natural disasters will lead more people to take risks for better economic opportunity that lead to being trafficked, but the most detrimental impact of natural disasters occurs due to the crumbling infrastructure. Personal interviews with anti-human trafficking workers on the ground of natural disasters, such as the Nepal earthquake, describe how traffickers purposefully enter disaster zones, impersonate relief workers, and lure an outstanding number of vulnerable people to a lifetime of slavery. One worker commented on this phenomenon to a popular news outlet saying, “this is the time when the brokers go in the name of relief to kidnap or lure women.”[7] Human traffickers capitalize on the lack of coordination, government infrastructure, and general communication to pose as relief workers, from well-known organizations, in order to lure victims and sell them as slaves.

Children separated from their families due to natural disasters are especially at risk to the lure of predators. Special Rapporteur, Najat Maalla M’jid, stated at the United Nations Human Rights Council, “children’s vulnerability is significantly increased when they are separated from their families, unaccompanied, orphaned or displaced following humanitarian crisis.”[8] M’jid went further to say in her report that the United Nations has found, “some people exploit the chaotic environment that follows a natural disaster to engage in criminal activities, such as selling children for the purpose of illegal adoption, forced labor or sexual exploitation.”[9] The chaos of a natural disaster presents more opportunity to lure and fraud vulnerable survivors than the impoverished economic state alone. Again, though poverty and a lack of economic opportunities is a major factor for human trafficking, the disorder and lack of communication caused by natural disasters creates far more opportunity for traffickers to build up their supply of free labor.

Substantial international law has been created in the United Nations to prevent human trafficking, and many countries have created corresponding domestic law. There has also been an overwhelming effort for nations to develop a cooperative relief effort after natural disasters. Though these efforts are noble, they are incomplete. Neither problem will be solved until the prevalence of the other is recognized. In its most basic form, international law surrounding human trafficking is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).[10] This document establishes the most basic freedoms and rights of human beings, regardless of race, nationality, gender, political preference, or any other self-identifying category.[11] Though it doesn’t mention human trafficking, article four specifically mentions that slavery in all forms shall be eliminated across all nations.[12] Shortly after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created, the UN created a resolution, the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, that specifically called for the end of human trafficking.[13] The entire document focuses on calling nations, “to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another: (1) [p]rocures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person; (2) [e]xploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person.”[14] Two decades later, the UN ratified another international standard, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which promoted the rights of all individuals throughout the world.[15] This document affirms the international communities’ desire that “the slave-trade in all their forms shall be eliminated.”[16] From the early stages of the United Nations, the international community decided that slavery and human trafficking are offenses that cannot be tolerated in any form. The twentieth century spurred the battle against trafficking and set the standard of freedom deserved by every citizen of the world, which the remaining international law attempts to achieve.

At the turn of the century, the United Nations ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women And Children, supplementing The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which called every nation to criminalize human trafficking, protect human trafficking victims, and coordinate to prevent future cases of human trafficking.[17] A few years later, a supplemental resolution was created, The United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, to further outline the measures by which countries are called to stop the actual smuggling of people into their borders.[18] The final major piece of international law is the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, which again further criminalizes the sale of children and calls for nations to work together to stop the expansion of child slavery.[19]

Though these laws are great efforts by the international community, they come with many gaps when trying to actually solve the devastating problems. On a general note, these laws contain gaps in enforceability by deferring each state to create their own law based on the guidelines of the resolution.[20] These international laws act as a high standard, encouraging countries to try their best to meet it.[21] This inevitable nature of international law undoubtedly creates space for traffickers to operate. However, the greater failure of these laws is the lack of awareness natural disasters, and other crisis, play in the operations of human trafficking. All the stated laws call nations to work together to prevent the spread of trafficking, outlining the important factors of trafficking to be weary of, and yet, not a single one mentions how natural disasters play into the expansion of human supply. It would be like an exterminator, trying to rid a house of a termite infection, not attempting to address the termite nest, but rather killing termites as he sees them. This is clearly an inefficient solution, and will only perpetuate the cost and toll on the homeowners. If the international community wants to truly address the issue of modern slavery, at bare minimum, they must consider one of the greatest sources of supply of vulnerable people. Until the international community sets a standard of law for each nation to base their domestic policies on which addresses the connection between natural disasters and human trafficking, modern slavery will never end.

In a similar manner, the international effort to mitigate the suffering from natural disasters will never truly be effective, until the coordinated effort acknowledges the prevalence of human trafficking in disaster zones. The international community has, in recent years, dramatically increased its effort to help nations recover from unpredictable natural disasters. Wealthy nations provide aid and support to developing states in an effort to stabilize their societies and lessen the suffering of their citizens. Furthermore, the United Nations has held many conventions which are aimed at understanding the damage caused by past disasters and looking to create more effective future disaster responses. The UN started addressing the issue of international disaster relief in the late twentieth century with the International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction as more nations began to coordinate disaster relief.[22] This resolution places natural disaster response as a central issue for the UN to address.[23] In an effort to create effective relief, the UN created several initiatives, such as the Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, The YokoHama Strategy, and several World Conferences on Disaster Reduction that produced documents such as Hyogo Framework and the Sendai Framework.[24] Furthermore, outside of the United Nations, the International Federation of Red Cross Societies has attempted to address the lack of binding international law or plan of action for disaster response. They created the International Disaster Response Laws, which were ratified and adopted by thirty-eight nations.[25] The Sendai Framework was established to replace the Hyogo Framework and will remain the most pervasive international standard in response to disasters until 2030.[26] It aims to “guide the multi-hazard management of disaster risk” as a transnational cooperative effort to mitigate the damages of high mortality, economic loss, personal suffering, spread of disaster zone, and international cost.[27] The International Federation of Red Cross Societies has attempted to supplement the UN framework, by providing more specific guidance for best practices in disaster relief in order to prevent the most suffering possible.

Though these actions are admirable, and it is important to continue the effort towards more effective disaster response, not a single document produced by the UN or Red Cross considers the impact of human trafficking on the victims of the disaster. If the goal of the international community is to prevent the suffering of innocent humans after a natural disaster, they must take into consideration the vulnerability to slavery these innocent humans will face. Modern slavery affects every category of suffering the UN Sendai Framework seeks to stop. High mortality, economic loss, personal suffering, spread of the suffering of disaster, and international cost are all consistently effected by human trafficking.[28] If the international community really wants to address these issues in preparation for response to natural disasters, they must take into consideration how vulnerability, chaos, and crisis create huge opportunities for traffickers to easily perpetrate horrendous acts of slavery. International law and efforts in response to natural disasters will be incomplete and ineffective in achieving their own outlined goals until action is taken to include an understanding of the connection between human trafficking and natural disasters.

The international community is exerting a remarkable effort to prevent human trafficking and to respond to the suffering of natural disasters, and yet both of these endeavors will continually be insufficient until the community fully understands the connection between the two. Furthermore, an analysis of the overlap must be included in international law, acting as a guideline for countries to create their own domestic policies that reflect the need to combat human trafficking and respond to natural disasters while acknowledging the other. An effective understanding of the connection between these inevitable atrocities of life is crucial to developing productive and successful policies. There is no doubt the international community desires to uphold basic human rights and prevent unneeded suffering caused by human trafficking and natural disasters, however, currently, its actions to achieve these goals are incredibly insufficient.

Mallory Miller is a Staff Editor with the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, and a 1L at the Sturm College of Law.


[1] Human Trafficking by the Numbers, Hum. Rts. First (Jan. 7, 2017),

[2] Human Trafficking, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, (last visited Sept. 2, 2017).

[3] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, supra note 2.

[4] Manuel Brülisauer, Hum. Trafficking in Post-Earthquake Nepal (2015),

[5] Manuel Brülisauer, supra note 4.

[6] Manuel Brülisauer, supra note 4.

[7] Jason Burke, Nepal Quake Survivors Face Threat from Human Traffickers Supplying Sex Trade, The Guardian, (May 5, 2015, 9:00 AM),

[8] David Singh, Child Traffickers Thrive on Disasters, U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, (Mar. 26, 2012),

[9] Singh, supra note 8.

[10] Lindsey King, International Law and Human Trafficking, Topical Res. Dig.: Hum. Rts. & Hum. Trafficking, (last visited Sept. 2, 2017).

[11] G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948).

[12] G.A. Res. 217 (III), A, supra note 9.

[13] King, supra note 10.

[14] G.A. Res. 317 (IV), Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (Dec. 2, 1949).

[15] King, supra note 10.

[16] G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Dec. 16, 1966).

[17] G.A. Res. 55/25, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Dec. 25, 2003).

[18] G.A. Res. 55/25, The United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air (Jan. 28, 2004).

[19] G.A. Res. A/RES/54/263, Optional Protocol to The Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (May 25, 2000).

[20] Lindsey King, International Law and Human Trafficking, Topical Res. Dig.: Hum. Rts. & Hum. Trafficking, (last visited Sept. 2, 2017).

[21] King, supra note 16.

[22] United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction (1999),

[23] International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction, supra note 18.

[24] Arielle Tozier de la Poterie & Marie-Ange Baudoin, From Yokohama to Sendai: Approaches to Participation in International Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, 6 Int’l J. Disaster Risk Sci. 128 (2015).

[25] U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Chart of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, U.N. Office for Risk Reduction,

[26] G.A. Res. 69/283, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, (June 3, 2015).

[27] G.A. Res. 60/283, supra note 18

[28] Louise Shelley, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, (2010).

Leave a Reply

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Posts by Date

October 2017
« Sep