By Jane McAdam

Earlier this month, in a church in Sydney’s leafy north shore, the sitting MP Liberal John Alexander managed to bring the kaleidoscope of climate change, human displacement, and foreign relations into the focus of the tightly contested federal election. By suggesting that Australia should help people in the Pacific to “move to higher ground” instead of weaning itself off coal, Alexander has been at the centre of much controversy.

While his comments have been portrayed as yet another example of the Coalition’s insensitivity to our Pacific neighbours, and as a sign that the Coalition is not serious about climate change, he is right to suggest that we need to start thinking seriously about human mobility as a form of adaptation. As the United Nations Secretary-General said this week, “climate change is running faster than what we are”.

The impacts of climate change and disasters around the world are already driving one person from their home every second, but there is little evidence that policymakers are proactively devising adaptation and migration policies to address this. Each year, more people are forced from their homes because of disasters than because of conflicts – 61 per cent compared to 39 per cent.

Most are displaced within their own countries, but some are forced to cross international borders – where they find themselves in legal limbo.

Neither international law nor most domestic laws provide a clear-cut legal status to people displaced by the impacts of disasters, climate change, or environmental degradation. Such people generally won’t qualify for protection as refugees. It’s also unlikely, at least at this point in time, that they will qualify for complementary protection under human rights law. This precludes returning people to situations where their lives are threatened or where they’re subject to inhuman or degrading treatment.

The world’s governments need policy responses that enable people to stay in their homes when possible and desirable, but allow them to move if and when they wish. The good news is that a toolkit developed by the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement – now the Platform on Disaster Displacement – is already available to help governments implement a coherent, evidence-based approach. It’s a big step forward from current practices which tend to be very ad hoc.

So, how have countries assisted those displaced by the impacts of disasters? Some have issued them with special humanitarian visas – usually temporary – in the aftermath of disasters. Such visas are sometimes granted on a discretionary basis; at other times, they are enshrined in legislation and triggered when an environmental catastrophe occurs.

Generally, visas are only available to people who have already left their homes, but a few countries have allowed people to apply for them before departure – enabling safe and lawful travel. After the Haitian earthquake, for instance, Bolivia granted temporary tourist visas to children while they secured longer-term migration alternatives. Occasionally, governments have evacuated people across international borders, though usually just for emergency medical care.

Some countries have allowed those with expired visas to stay until their countries were deemed safe for return. For example, New Zealand offered temporary visas to Nepalis already in the country who could not return home after the 2015 earthquakes.

Sometimes, immigration officials have the discretion to provide temporary relief for people from disaster-affected areas who have applied for regular visas through the general migration program – as has been seen in Canada, Australia, and the US. In other cases, expedited or fast-track processes are specifically enacted for people from disaster-affected areas, with substantive visa requirements sometimes relaxed or waived as well.

The advantage of this approach is that it uses existing visas and procedures in a more efficient way, and generally gives people a more stable legal status. Some end up with whatever work, education, or family visa they applied for – and potentially even permanent residency or citizenship.

While most cases concern individuals or families, at times, whole groups of people have been granted temporary stay on humanitarian grounds, especially where individual status determination is impractical, as is often so in Africa. Central American countries have recognised the importance of creating a more predictable system that protects those facing disasters, adopting regional guidelines to create a more systematic set of responses.

Some governments have used temporary labour migration schemes as a means of assisting people living in precarious conditions. For instance, both Australia and New Zealand have seasonal employment schemes targeting small Pacific island countries significantly affected by the impacts of climate change, even though this is not an articulated rationale for the scheme. Such measures can be very effective in providing livelihood diversification opportunities and gradual exposure to life in another country. Similarly, regional or bilateral free movement agreements can enable disaster-affected people to move across borders.

It’s also interesting to see how they can use ready-made visa categories as a kind of self-help mechanism. For instance, the bilateral Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement between Australia and New Zealand enabled 3,600 New Zealanders to move to Australia after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010–11. Although the Arrangement was never envisaged as a disaster response tool, it enabled people to take charge of their own lives rather than relying on government intervention.

Existing schemes and visa categories provide the most straightforward structure for accepting people on the move in the context of disasters. However, current policies need some fine-tuning in order to be sufficiently responsive to people’s needs, especially when providing all the documents ordinarily required may be difficult. They also won’t be suitable for everyone – the infirm, the very old, or the very young – which is why humanitarian visas are also necessary.

All this goes to show why active preparation and planning are key to facilitating safe, orderly, and dignified movement. Australia would benefit from reviewing existing and past practices of its own – and other countries – to create a considered and systematic approach to displacement and migration in the context of climate change and disasters. As we head towards the federal election, this needs to be a priority for the incoming government.

This was first published on 15 May 2019 in Policy Forum, Asia & Pacific Policy Society.