By Jane McAdam

Every second, someone is displaced by a disaster. In fact, each year many more people are displaced by the impacts of disasters and climate change than by conflict and persecution. We’ve seen this in our own region with the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia and with terrible cyclones in places like Vanuatu and Fiji. With the impacts of climate change, we are likely to see disasters on steroids as events become more frequent and/or more intense.

Yet, despite the fact that we have more disaster-displaced people than refugees, who are protected – at least in law – by an international treaty, the Refugee Convention, we have nothing similar when it comes to the protection of people displaced by disasters. This is why forced migration is one of the biggest challenges we face today. It demands clear, strategic thinking – we can’t adopt a business-as-usual approach. And that’s the mission of UNSW’s Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law: to generate cutting-edge research that has real-world impact, which can shape law, policy and ultimately improve protection for people on the ground. 

The Kaldor Centre has the great credibility of being in a university, but we are certainly not stuck in an ivory tower. My own work, for instance, has taken me from the small Pacific Island countries of Tuvalu and Kiribati, through to places like Bangladesh and India, and on to the meeting rooms of the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. What motivates me in all this work is my desire to improve the lives of the world’s displaced people. I want to understand their plight and their ideas for solutions – things as simple as creating building codes and better building practices, and ensuring that people aren’t living in precarious areas – things which governments could do right now. And I also want to work towards creating better laws, policies and frameworks for protection at the global, regional and national levels. 

In just five short years, the Kaldor Centre’s pioneering and world-leading research has directly influenced new policy frameworks and operational responses. Let me give you some examples. 

In 2015, 109 governments endorsed the Nansen Initiative’s Protection Agenda on cross-border displacement in the context of disasters. Back in 2012, when the Nansen Initiative was first formed, just a handful of countries were interested in this. And yet only three years later, following rigorous and careful community consultations, 109 governments endorsed this road map for protection. It calls on governments to implement disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures, to develop migration pathways so that people can move before disasters strike, to consider planned relocations where land is unsafe, and to ensure that humanitarian assistance is available for those who are displaced. Kaldor Centre experts were instrumental in shaping that document.

In 2016, we helped Central American governments develop a guide to effective practices on moving across borders in the context of disasters. This was sparked by those governments’ realisation that they had all had nationals forced out of their homes because of disasters in their own countries, and yet they had very ad hoc, non-systematic policies in place. They realised that it was in everyone’s interest to create a common set of guidance, and that’s what we were involved in doing. 

Internationally, we also helped draft planned relocation guidance for governments, and subsequently an operational toolbox for how to put that into practice. 

In 2017, my colleague Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill and I were appointed by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to come up with a short, medium and long-term strategy for that institution on how to deal with displacement generated by disasters and climate change impacts. That strategy will not only inform what UNHCR does, but will necessarily also shape what governments do, and ultimately what protection people get on the ground.  

This year, we were key in drafting the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea-Level Rise, which is feeding into the work on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Task Force on Displacement – again with global impact. 

In December this year, the world’s governments will adopt the first-ever international instrument on international migration, the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Within this is a unique section specifically on displacement linked to disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. As one senior official said, this would not have been possible without the conceptual work done by the Kaldor Centre. 

The issue of displacement in the context of climate change and disasters is now firmly on the global agenda, with legal, policy and operational tools for action. As a multidimensional problem, it demands multidimensional solutions. Throughout all of this work, I am reminded of the words of the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands: ‘If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.’ The stakes are too high: we must plan to succeed.

Adapted from Jane McAdam's remarks at UNSW Sydney's Town and Gown on 17 October 2018, transcribed by Kim Shaddick.