This chapter examines the international response to the displacement linked to climate change and natural disasters. It begins by describing the displacement challenges linked to the effects of climate change and natural disasters, and then describes a potential normative gap in the protection of people displaced across borders owing to these phenomena. It concludes that protection gaps need to be addressed by the international community, and that solidarity will be tested by the impacts of climate change.

A boy in the ruins of his home after it was hit by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

A boy in the ruins of his home after it was hit by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

The scale and complexity of human displacement will be increased by climate change, a defining issue of our times. More people are already displaced annually by natural disasters than by conflict, and the long term effects of climate change are expected to trigger large-scale population movements within and across borders. Climate change also accelerates other global trends that create or affect refugees and IDPs such as conflict, urbanization and economic inequality. Displacement generated by climate change and natural disasters will test the capacity of the international humanitarian system.

International concern has grown about the effect of climate change on human mobility. In 2010, the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change acknowledged the importance of addressing the movement of people caused by climate change. The International Law Commission is working on a text that might serve as the basis for the development of binding international law on the protection of people in the event of disasters.

As outlined in the Nansen Principles of 2011, UNHCR believes the international community needs to ensure a stronger and better-coordinated response to displacement from sudden-onset disasters and from the effects of climate change. UNHCR’s core mandate does not encompass displacement caused by natural disasters and climate change, but UNHCR has a clear interest in such movements of people and an ability to respond to their needs.

Box 7.7 The Nansen Principles: a way forward?

Climate change

Environmentally-induced migration and displacement could take on unprecedented dimensions; predictions about the potential scale of such movements range from 25 million to one billion by 2050. Different categories of population movement could occur or intensify as a result of climate change:

  • People may be displaced by hydro-meteorological disasters, such as flooding, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, or mudslides. These movements are usually temporary in nature, and may cross borders.
  • Displacement may be caused by environmental degradation and slow onset disasters. These could result in people moving to other regions of their country or to other countries if no options are available for internal relocation, and most likely on a permanent basis.
  • In the case of inundation of small island states by rising sea levels, the entire population of an island might be forced to move permanently elsewhere.
  • Where some areas become uninhabitable because of sudden or slow-onset disasters, evacuation and relocation of people to safe areas may be needed. Such movements may be temporary or permanent, depending on conditions in the area of origin.
  • Finally, displacement of varying duration may occur when armed conflict and violence are triggered by a shortage of essential resources (water, food) due to climate change.

Box 7.4 The particular case of small island states

A reforestation project in a refugee-hosting area of eastern Sudan.

A reforestation project in a refugee-hosting area of eastern Sudan.

The slow-onset disasters listed above are likely to produce the largest movement of people, but each of the categories poses its own challenges in terms of protection and long-term solutions. People displaced within the borders of their own countries are defined as IDPs, and addressed by the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Some people displaced across an international border by armed conflict and violence linked to climate change may fall within UNHCR’s mandate, or qualify for existing complementary forms of protection. But many who are forced to move outside their countries for reasons linked to climate change or natural disasters fall into a legal gap, as there is no applicable protection framework.

At the individual or household level, the effects of climate change will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities to create situations where people judge that it is time to move, either because they cannot survive or because they would be better off elsewhere. The international system currently distinguishes between voluntary movement of people (‘migration’) and forced movement (‘displacement’), but displacement from climate change require greater nuance. Further, people forced to leave their communities because of extreme weather events or other natural hazards have very clear needs for material assistance, and may have protection needs.

Natural disasters

The number of sudden-onset disasters has increased dramatically in recent decades. According to many experts, this is the result of global warming and a particular effect on rainfall patterns resulting in an increase in hydrometeorological disasters. While 133 natural disasters were recorded in 1980, the number has increased to over 350 per year in recent years. Natural hazards do not in themselves constitute disasters; rather human actions exacerbate the effects of natural phenomena to create disasters. The impact of natural disasters is a function of both the severity of the natural hazard and the capacity of a population to deal with it. The notion of vulnerability is thus key to understanding the impact of natural disasters on communities. Patterns of human settlement affect whether or not a natural hazard constitutes a disaster. Marginal areas in urban settings are likely to be most seriously affected in disasters as the rate of urbanization increases worldwide. Recently, efforts have been made to collect data on the number of people displaced by natural disasters, but only for sudden-onset disasters. There are no systematic data on cross-border displacement caused by disasters.

Protection risks

Evaluations of the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami increased awareness about the importance of protection in natural disasters. Evaluations highlighted multiple protection risks: increased trafficking of children; sexual and gender-based violence in temporary shelters; reinforced discrimination; the loss of documentation and access to services; and housing, land and property issues. Governments may be reluctant to consider people driven from their homes by natural disasters as IDPs. The Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Human Rights of IDPs developed the Operational Guidelines for the Protection of Persons affected by Natural Disasters, which UNHCR helped draft and field-test. The guidelines explain how natural disasters affect human rights, and offer a hierarchy of protection actions to be taken in situations of natural disasters.

UNHCR’s engagement

Where UNHCR has an established presence in a disaster-affected country, the agency has frequently offered its support to authorities. A review of 58 natural disasters during 2005–2010 found that UNHCR had an operational involvement in 13 and provided support in another five. The UN has designated UNHCR to take the lead on protection issues in complex emergencies, but no corresponding lead at field level was named for protection in natural disasters. Instead, the UN’s three protection agencies—UNHCR, UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—are expected to consult and determine which is best-placed to lead in a specific emergency. In practice, this has led to delays and unpredictability. The High Commissioner has expressed willingness to take on a more predictable role, but it proved difficult to find agreement on the way forward.

The town of Beichuan in Sichuan province (China) after the May 2008 earthquake.

The town of Beichuan in Sichuan province (China) after the May 2008 earthquake.

A normative gap

People who are displaced across borders owing to natural disasters and the effect of climate change face a potential legal protection gap. The 1951 Convention does not cover people fleeing natural disasters, as law courts around the world and UNHCR have made clear. States frequently grant permission to remain, or a stay of deportation, to people whose country of origin has been struck by a natural disaster or an extreme event. However, a broader international framework providing guidance for the protection of those displaced across national borders for environmental reasons could help states to understand and meet their responsibilities in this area. At present, there is little political support for a new binding international instrument, but UNHCR has indicated that it would be prepared to work with states and other actors to develop a guiding framework or instrument to apply to situations of external displacement outside those covered by the 1951 Convention, and in particular to displacement resulting from climate change and natural disasters.

Solidarity test

While it is difficult to distinguish displacement caused by climate change and displacement resulting from natural disasters, protection gaps clearly exist for people displaced across international borders, whether by sudden-onset natural disasters or by longer-term effects of climate changes. Such gaps will need to be addressed presently, in preparation for possible future increases in displacement movements. National laws and policies will need to be adapted and strengthened, and regional and sub-regional norms will need to be developed so that governments can hold one another accountable for their responses to displacement caused by climate change. At the international level, no single institution has responsibility for matters related to climate change; so addressing its effects will require new forms of multilateral cooperation. Climate change is likely to test global solidarity in ways that are radically different from anything experienced before.

In 2010, Pakistan suffered the worst flooding in a century. In August 2011, heavy monsoon rains again flooded the country, displacing millions of people.

In 2010, Pakistan suffered the worst flooding in a century. In August 2011, heavy monsoon rains again flooded the country, displacing millions of people.