Disasters: what can be done to protect displaced people?

Article, 05.10.2015

The Nansen Initiative, launched by Switzerland and Norway in 2012, will present its findings on 12-13 October in Geneva. For three years its members collected best practices from states that have faced an influx of people displaced by disasters. Walter Kälin, a professor of public international law at the University of Bern who also serves as Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative, describes the consultation process and discusses the next steps.  

Walter Kälin makes a PowerPoint presentation in a conference room
Walter Kälin conducted numerous regional consultations, such as this one in Nepal. Initiative Nansen

The Nansen Initiative, launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway, spent three years seeking to better understand the displacement of people as a result of disasters and the effects of climate change. To do this, the Nansen Initiative held consultations with representatives from States and civil society in regions around the world facing this issue. This dialogue led to a substantial exchange of experiences and expanded the knowledge base on the dynamics of disaster displacement.

The Nansen Initiative collected its conclusions in a document entitled “Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Disaster-Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change”.  The document represents a toolbox of effective practices using legal, humanitarian and prevention-related measures. The Agenda will be discussed and approved by governments during the Global Consultation on 12-13 October in Geneva. The key issues are explained here by Walter Kälin, professor of public international law at the University of Bern and Envoy of the joint Swiss and Norwegian Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative.

What key lessons did you bring back from the regional consultations held all over the world in the past three years?

The regional approach was essential for the work of the Initiative. It showed that situations and needs varied considerably from one region to the next, even from one community to the next. We learned, for example, that disaster victims are generally displaced within their region, because they hope to return home one day. Last March in Nepal, for example, residents displaced by the earthquake were able to go to India thanks to the agreement on the free movement of persons between these two countries. In South-East Asia, disaster displacement is most often internal. People who live on the Pacific Islands, on the other hand, are already wondering where they will emigrate the day their island goes under water. In Mozambique and Malawi, floods regularly cause the displacement of people between the two countries, while in the Horn of Africa droughts force nomadic pastoralists to cross borders in order to feed their livestock. An essential conclusion of our consultations reveals that over the past 10 years, more than 50 countries around the world have either received or not returned disaster-affected foreigners. This is a large number.

Can you cite some examples of effective practices collected during these consultations?

In the area of legal protection for displaced people, it is worth mentioning the case of the Somalis who were granted refugee status in neighbouring countries in 2011 and 2012 thanks to the African Union’s Refugee Convention. Under this convention, people displaced for reasons of conflict and drought were granted this status. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Canada gave priority to requests for work permits and family reunification from Haitians, while Brazil granted Haitians protected status and then quickly arranged for work permits. Specific legal protections that allow States to receive or not return disaster-displaced foreigners are already in place in most countries of Central America. These are all worthy measures, but it is just as crucial to invest in measures aimed at mitigating disaster risk in order to protect communities from floods, earthquakes and rising waters, and thus avoid disaster displacement from occurring. All these effective practices were included in our Agenda.

The Nansen Initiative will present the Agenda at the Global Consultation on 12-13 October in Geneva. What do you expect to happen?

The Agenda provides tools to respond to the challenge of people who have been displaced across borders following a disaster, including identifying available legal mechanisms that could protect them and preventive measures to allow families to remain at home. The Agenda is not a binding document, however. In Geneva, we expect this document to receive the support of a large number of States taking part in the Global Consultation, with the hope that the States, along with regional and international organisations, will then take steps to implement our recommendations on the ground. The Nansen Initiative as such will end in December 2015, and much work will still remain to be done to follow-up on our proposals. We also hope to make participants of the Paris Climate Change Conference in December aware of the issue of people forced to flee from the effects of climate change, so that this issue appears in the final outcome.

No legal status

Every year an average of 26 million people are forced to flee their homes because of floods, tropical storms, earthquakes, droughts and other types of disaster. Most people displaced by disasters remain in their own country. With the impacts of climate change, the displacement of people is likely to further increase, including over borders. When these people cross a border, however, they do not have any recognised legal status. They are not considered political refugees. Nor are they ‘climate refugees’, a status that does not exist in international law or that would require them to prove that they are victims of climate change. As a result, disaster- displaced persons do not currently enjoy any particular legal protection in the event that they are forced to flee abroad. Switzerland and Norway launched the Nansen Initiative in 2012 in order to improve the protection afforded to these people.