GSP, GSP Plus, EBA, Latest news, Mobility, Social & human rights, WTO crisis and reform

Blog: Climate change, migration and trade policy – how to enable sustainable development

Borderlex hosted a panel discussion at the World Trade Organization’s Public Forum in Geneva on ‘How trade policy can make (climate) migration work’. Below you will find some key take-aways from this session, including quickly actionable policy recommendations.


It is rather unusual to be talking about migration in the context of international trade policy.

But it is becoming ever more obvious that one cannot talk of trade policy, which deals with the movement of goods, services and capital across borders, without talking about the cross-border movement of humans. Indeed these happen to provide the economic factor ‘labour’, without which not much happens in the economy, right?

The panel discussion gathered the following speakers:

  • Marie McAuliffe, Head of Migration Research Division, International Organization for Migration
  • Gaia Vince, author of Nomad Century, How to survive the climate upheaval
  • Thomas Cottier, Senior Research Fellow, World Trade Institute, University of Bern
  • Anirudh Shingal, Associate Professor, SPJIMR, Mumbai & Senior Programme Associate, EUI, Florence
  • Matthias Krämer, Head of international economic policy, Bundesverband Deutscher Industrie

Here are the key messages:

Migration is an important aspect of sustainable development

…and also part of a range of global and regional initiatives, not least the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Climate change is making harnessing migration an even more salient policy priority.

There are already 30 million people displaced today in the world – mostly within national borders – due to natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes or wildfires, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Slides here

The climate dimension of migration is set to increase as entire world regions are expected to become unliveable

The world is currently on path not to meet its 1.5° temperature increase goal set in the 2015 UNFCC Paris Agreement on climate. Entire regions of the world are expected to become unliveable due to the combination of heat and humidity.

This will inevitably lead to more people moving, and most importantly moving towards the northern part of our planet, where most liveable areas will be, even if these too are affected by climate change.

This situation needs to be actively harnessed and managed.

Map here

International migration policy needs to provide concrete solutions for humans

The IOM recommends the following approaches to addressing migration:

  • Provide solutions for people to move: enabling safe and regular migration.
  • Provide solutions for people on the move: from anticipatory action to enabling solutions to minimise and better address loss and damage, including displacement
  • Provide solutions for people to stay: disaster risk reduction and local adaptation to minimise displacement

Migration should legally be treated as Common Concern of Humankind

Climate change benefits from this international status. Taking the same approach to migration would oblige nation-states in the UN system to cooperate on migration, regardless of their other disagreements. It would help global system ‘mainstream’ the issue across a range of international legal regimes – not least the trading system.

Currently migration policy is a unilateral national policy, leading to ‘beggar-my-neighbour’ outcomes. This results in untenable situations for humans, human rights violations and waste of human capital.

See slides here for further reading on migration as a Common Concern of Humankind.

Migration is central to the process of sustainable economic development and international economic integration

Trade economists tend to have been schooled with the ‘Hecksher Ohlin’ model of international trade. This model treats cross-border migration as interchangeable with trade.

But in fact there is mounting empirical evidence and we see theoretical advances showing that labour migration – skilled and unskilled – is an important factor in boosting cross-border trade and foreign direct investments.

“Migration benefits both home and host countries by facilitating trade, increased remittances, technological transfer, new knowledge, innovations, attitudes and information,” writes Anirudh Shingal.

Slides here

Migration and constructive migration policies essential for industry

German industry, represented on this panel, suffers from acute skills shortages at a time when it is putting major efforts into offering technological solutions to meet climate change goals. The industry also requires a cooperative international political and trade policy environment to thrive.

What European and EU trade policy can do to best harness the climate-migration nexus


  • Do not attach failed asylum seeker returns as a condition for granting General System of Preferences market access to the EU. Keep international trade policies constructive.

EU is in competition with authoritarian states for political, economic and global standard leadership, at a time when its unilateral climate policies such as CBAM are already raising costs for developing countries and increasing political tensions with the EU (as indeed amply shown at the WTO Public Forum itself).


  • Agriculture tech transfers and food security

Many climate-related migration pressures will come from populations working the land. The WTO can and should have a role in facilitating technology transfers to help agriculture adapt to climate change, via the TRIPS agreement, and possibly favourable tax policies too.

Food security and banning export restrictions should become a priority. At a time of climate instability, it is vital that countries and populations can easily access food from across the world and switch suppliers to avoid shortages, price hikes or famines.

  • Sustainable development
    • Reduce currently exorbitantly high remittance fees by liberalizing relevant financial services via the General Agreement on Trade in Services known as GATS, thus helping sustainable development
    • Increase vocational and technical training across borders: this can be done via the GATS agreement too.
    • ‘Green goods’ tariff cuts: find a path back to the defunct Environmental Goods Agreement
    • Investment facilitation for development: ensure the new WTO plurilateral agreement becomes an effective vehicle for technology transfers.


  1. Two points where IOM proposals and WTO rules could prevent “migration at the right time”:
    1. IOM ignores the negative impact of “disaster risk reduction” through short-term measures in areas without long-term human liveability.
    2. WTO notes rapidly increasing risk insurance schemes in almost all developed and (rich) developing countries, wrongly notified in the WTO/COA as Green Box farm support (exception: USA!), but in reality delaying production adjustment and mitigation, and displacing production in (unensured) LDCs, instead of “Agriculture tech transfers and food security” claims proffered on this rostrum.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.