When we talk about law and policy responses to human displacement in the context of disasters and climate change, often the focus is on what we do not have – for instance, we do not have an international treaty for protecting those who move for environmental reasons.


But the perspective was shifted when more than 140 researchers and practitioners working across Africa and beyond gathered for the opening plenary of the virtual workshop series, ‘Developing a Research and Policy Agenda for Addressing Displacement and Migration in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change in Africa'.


'In this workshop series,' said the Kaldor Centre's Dr Tamara Wood in her opening address, 'we want to take a slightly different starting point, and look more closely at what we do have.'


It is true that, as a continent, Africa experiences some of the highest rates of displacement and migration associated with disasters and climate change worldwide. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 3.4 million people were newly displaced in the context of disasters in 2019 in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the World Bank’s Groundswell Report estimates that up to 86 million people will become internal climate migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 without robust action to mitigate and adapt to climate change and invest in development.


Yet, as the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda highlights in its ‘toolbox approach', a number of frameworks and strategies exist already at global, regional, sub-regional and national levels to address human mobility in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. Over the next eight weeks, workshop participants will engage across thematic working groups to plan future research to advance law and policy responses to these issues in Africa.


'Let us focus on the opportunities to address these challenges, because solutions exist,' said Fathia Alwan, Director of Health and Social Development, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) during the event. 'The network of researchers and policy experts across Africa, to be established, will provide a great opportunity to continue discussions; IGAD will lean on this network for future collaboration.'


Moreover, while lawful pathways for those who move across international borders in this context remain limited, and often uncertain, speakers highlighted the crucial role that existing legal and policy frameworks can play in helping communities stay at home, helping communities move out of harm's way and protecting those displaced.


Examples of such frameworks include the African Union’s 2018 Revised Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action (2018-2030), which calls on States to better address environmental causes of movement in their national and regional migration policies, and the recently endorsed Protocol for the Free Movement of Person in the IGAD Region (2020), which includes specific provisions for people moving across borders in the context of a disaster.


In the welcome remarks, representatives from the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also highlighted the need to strengthen and support collaboration among researchers, data actors, practitioners and policymakers in Africa, building on current projects underway such as the Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Migration, the IOM-led project Implementing Global Policies on Environmental Migration and Disaster Displacement project in West Africa among others.


Representatives from the University of Pretoria Centre for Human Rights, German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), the University of Pretoria and the Kaldor Centre spoke about the need to explore a range of law and policy tools tailored to addressing the different types of movement, the different stages of human mobility, and the different needs of those affected. They emphasised the critical role of national and regional actors, as well as local researchers and practitioners, in providing the skills and the in-depth knowledge needed to create effective responses and durable solutions.


Justice John Mativo, Judge at the High Court of Kenya and keynote speaker at the opening plenary, spoke of the role of climate-change litigation and human-rights litigation in addressing displacement in the context of climate change and disasters.


'Litigation also pushes legislators and policymakers to be more ambitious and thorough in their approaches to climate change,' Justice Mativo said. '[It] is a viable measure to address the constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.'


He called for increased academic research and collaboration to support climate change and disaster displacement litigation in Africa, emphasising the unique role of litigation 'as a tool to either challenge the facial validity of these laws or to ensure that they are applied and enforced.'


The Envoy of the Chair of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, Professor Walter Kaelin recalled in his keynote address some of the most destitute internally displaced persons he had ever met, former pastoralists in Southern Ethiopia.


'One of their elders told me that they had no future. He said that even if I gave him lots of animals, he would not go back to his pastoralist lifestyle. He had lost everything twice since 2011 and felt that climate change will make things worse in the future.'


Prof. Kaelin highlighted the multi-causality and complexity of human mobility in the context of climate change and disasters. He outlined three key conceptualisations of human mobility in the context of climate change and disasters: the climate change approach, the migration approach and the disaster approach. According to Prof. Kaelin, this understanding of disaster displacement provides multiple entry points for research, practice, law and policy.


Over the coming weeks, the Virtual Workshop Series will provide an opportunity for academics and policy experts working across Africa and beyond to engage in discussion, form networks and plan future research on topics related to displacement and migration in the context of disasters and climate change in Africa.


For more information and resources, explore the Virtual Workshop Series webpage.


This Workshop Series has the generous support of International Organization for Migration (IOM); UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ); Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD); and Africa-Australia Universities Network (AAUN). Organising partners of the Virtual Workshop Series include the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), International Organization for Migration, UNHCR, IGAD, GIZ, University of Nairobi, University of Pretoria and Kaldor Centre.