Climate change, disasters and displacement

How do we ensure that people moving in the context of climate change and disasters have their rights and dignity protected?

Joki and Bevelyn alongside their brother and parents are the sole family living on the tiny island of Huene. Originally linked to a nearby island, the island has been slowly shrinking over the years making it increasingly difficult to grow crops. It is likely that Joki and Bevelyn will be the last generation to live on the island.

The challenge

Every second, someone is displaced by a disaster. Each year, about three times as many people are displaced internally by disasters than by conflict – the vast majority in the Asia-Pacific region.

Climate change will amplify the problem as worsening cyclones, floods, bushfires, droughts and food insecurity force millions from their homes, potentially rendering some areas permanently unsafe. Most people will move within their own countries, but some may be displaced across borders. 

While the challenges of addressing climate change and disasters are immense, much can be done to alleviate displacement and its human costs – if we act now.

Whether and how people move will be dependent on mitigation, adaptation, disaster risk reduction, financing, resourcing, technological innovation and migration policies. In other words, the extent of climate mobility will in part depend on the choices we make today. 

We need to develop laws and policies that assist people to remain in their homes where this is possible and desirable; to move elsewhere, in anticipation of harm; and to be protected and assisted if they are displaced. At all times, safeguarding people’s choices, rights and dignity must be paramount.

Our impact

At the forefront of global efforts to ensure that people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters are protected, the Kaldor Centre is actively engaged in key international policy processes – from advising the UN Refugee Agency on its global strategy, through to informing frameworks that have been endorsed by the majority of the world’s governments.  As a senior negotiator on the world’s first migration compact explained, ‘[m]uch of what is reflected in [that instrument] would not have been possible without the conceptual work done by the Kaldor Centre.’  

We provided advice to the Biden Administration about how the US could create protection and resettlement frameworks for people displaced by climate change impacts. We advised Pacific governments on strategies to preserve statehood and protect people affected by sea-level rise, and created the initial draft of a world-first climate mobility framework for Pacific States. At all times, our approach is informed by the views of communities on the frontline of climate change, garnered through our fieldwork in the Pacific, South Asia and Africa.  

Our pioneering research is already making a difference for people on the ground – assisting people at risk of displacement to secure their long-term future.

Our work

Our vision is a world in which people at risk of climate-related displacement can lead safe, dignified and secure lives. We work in partnership with communities, governments and international organisations to help develop holistic solutions for people at risk. By combining our legal and policy expertise with lived experience on the ground, we help to ensure affected communities are ‘future ready’ by anticipating, preparing for and responding to climate mobility.

We do the deep, long-term thinking that drives more nuanced understandings of international law in this context, including with respect to refugee law, migration law, statelessness, statehood, human rights and the protection of culture, nationality and franchise.

We work with affected communities to co-design legal and policy responses that help them adapt and reduce the risks posed by climate change and disasters, while also enabling them to move safely out of harm’s way if the need arises.

We develop robust legal and policy frameworks that guide more predictable and coordinated responses, upholding the human rights of people at risk and ensuring that their knowledge, views and perspectives are reflected.

We help governments to plan for the long term and devise strategies to protect the security and well-being of their populations. In doing this, we enhance public understanding about how climate change affects movement, so as to foster constructive engagement and solutions.

Our global work has included:

  • Ensuring protection for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change (Jane McAdam and Tamara Wood)

    This project aims to develop authoritative, practical legal guidance to expand the availability of protection for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disasters. It will articulate how existing refugee and human rights law frameworks can already provide substantial protection in this context, and provide practical guidance for decision-makers, legislators and lawyers.

    Stage 1 will see the development of international-level guidelines explaining how the Refugee Convention, human rights treaties, and regional refugee and human rights law can apply in the context of climate/disaster-related displacement. This will provide an overarching framework to guide the development, in stage 2, of national-level guidelines showing how domestic asylum laws can be interpreted and leveraged to secure protection in this context.

    This project is generously supported by Open Society Foundations, and is being undertaken in collaboration with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco and the Essex Law School and Human Rights Centre.

    Evacuations (Jane McAdam)

    Evacuations can be a lifesaving tool. But as recent global conflicts and unprecedented disasters have shown, without careful planning and oversight, evacuations can also displace people – often for prolonged periods and at great social, economic and personal cost. This blind spot creates a risk that the needs and rights of millions of evacuees will remain invisible and unaddressed – especially since evacuations account for the vast majority of disaster-related displacement each year.

    For more information on this timely and prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship program, please see the dedicated project page here.

    Planned relocation in the context of hazards, disasters and climate change (Sanjula Weerasinghe and Erica Bower)

    As hazards, disasters and climate change profoundly affect people’s lives and living conditions, communities and authorities seek opportunities to move people permanently out of harm’s way. The planned relocation of people to areas with lower exposure and disaster risks are occurring around the world. This form of human mobility is recognised in policy and practice as a tool for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. However, it can also undermine human security. As such, planned relocation is generally considered as a measure of last resort. Experts have developed guidance, tools and evidence to inform planned relocation processes; this research project builds on these previous efforts. It provides an evidence base of planned relocation cases from around the world and identifies their key characteristics, including the associated hazards, spatial patterns, number of households, distance between sites, legal frameworks, initiating and supporting actors and challenges. The research seeks to provide policymakers, practitioners and communities with refined information to better assess how planned relocation could be undertaken to minimise negative impacts, avoid pitfalls and promote human rights and human dignity. This work also serves as a foundation for future comparative research on what is, and what contributes to, ‘successful’ outcomes.  

    Protection in the context of conflict, disaster and other crises (Sanjula Weerasinghe)

    In some places, conflict and disaster overlap and affect the same people. More recently, COVID-19 has aggravated the conditions of vulnerability of displaced populations. This research recognises that intersecting, overlapping or recurrent crises undermine governance and resilience and exacerbate protection needs. It examines how certain States in Africa and Latin America have recognised refugee status on the basis of broader criteria explicit in regional refugee definitions in situations where disaster combined with conflict and violence. Through case studies, it also examines how legal and institutional frameworks on internal displacement and disaster risk reduction address displacement associated with each trigger. Finally, it examines how the dual challenges of COVID-19 and disasters have affected internally displaced people in the Asia Pacific region. 

    Free movement agreements and protection for the disaster displaced (Tamara Wood)

    In light of the protection gap for disaster displaced persons under international law, States and others must look to existing cross-border mobility mechanisms to see whether they could facilitate access to territory and safety for those forced to leave their homes and countries in search of security. This research investigates the potential role of one such mechanism – namely, regional agreements for the free movement of persons between States. Regional free movement agreements – including visa-free travel and the relaxation of entry requirements – have the potential to facilitate movement in the context of disasters and climate change, allowing affected communities to move in safety and with dignity. However, free movement agreements were not developed with the protection needs of displaced persons in mind, and at present are generally not attuned to the human rights of those who move.

    This research project investigates how free movement agreements do, or could, provide protection for cross-border disaster displaced persons. It considers important questions such as whether disaster displaced persons are eligible for free movement into neighbouring countries, the rights afforded to displaced persons in countries of destination, and the prospects for lasting solutions for those who cannot return home, and makes recommendations as to how free movement agreements could be adapted or better implemented to address the protection needs of disaster displaced persons in the future. The research focuses on Africa, where free movement agreements have been adopted or proposed at both the regional and sub-regional levels. However, the findings and recommendations could provide a model for consideration in other regions as well, where rights-based free movement agreements could facilitate access to territory and lifesaving assistance for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. 

    For further information, see The Role of Free Movement in Preventing and Responding to Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change: A Study of Africa and associated Stakeholder Workshop Report, Stellenbosch, South Africa. 

Selected publications

Books:

Peer-Reviewed Articles

  • B Burson, W Kälin and J McAdam, ‘Statehood, Human Rights and Sea-Level Rise: A Response to the International Law Commission’s Second Issues Paper on Sea-Level Rise in relation to International Law’ (2021) 4 Yearbook of International Disaster Law 265–80 (published April 2023)
  • M Foster and J McAdam, ‘Analysis of “Imminence” in International Protection Claims: Teitiota v New Zealand and Beyond’ (2022) 71 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 975–82
  • L Lixinski, J McAdam and P Tupou, ‘Ocean Cultures, the Anthropocene and International Law: Cultural Heritage and Mobility Law as Imaginative Gateways’ (2022) 23(1) Melbourne Journal of International Law 1–22
  • J McAdam, ‘Protecting People Displaced by the Impacts of Climate Change: The UN Human Rights Committee and the Principle of Non-Refoulement’ (2020) 114 American Journal of International Law 708–25

 

Media

Conference/Seminar Papers

Public Events

Other Papers/Presentations

  • Social media video with Professor John Church on Climate Change and Displacement (25,000 views in a week) (May 2019)

Radio

 

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