Patchwork solution on horizon for people fleeing disasters

Patchwork solution on horizon for people fleeing disasters

In the latest Blog for SmartEarth, guest author Megan Rowling, of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, writes about the Nansen Initiative which is helping states figure out how to protect people displaced across borders by natural disasters and climate change.

For a decade or so, experts have agonised over what to do about people forced from their homes and countries by disasters resulting from extreme weather and other climate impacts. What’s become clear is there’s no appetite for a new international law to protect them.

One reason is the difficulty of determining just how much of a migrant’s decision to go is influenced by worsening environmental problems.

Another is the realisation that climate change, on its own, is unlikely to bring new waves of refugees knocking on the doors of developed countries.

Instead, “climate migration” tends to follow the pattern of other migration, often bringing the displaced to towns from rural areas, or to neighbouring rather than far-flung countries.

But that doesn’t mean the issue has simply been stuffed under the carpet.

The Nansen Initiative, launched by the governments of Norway and Switzerland in 2012, has been helping states figure out how to protect people displaced across borders by natural disasters and climate change, since they are not currently covered by any international convention or other instrument.

The Nansen Initiative has not tried to develop new legal standards for helping disaster-displaced people, but instead to find agreement among states on ways to look after them, through regional consultations with governments and civil society.

Writing in the new issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), Walter Kälin, a human rights lawyer and envoy for the initiative, confirms that a “protection agenda” to be adopted at a global meeting in Geneva in October will not suggest creating new international law.

Rather, it will present “a set of common understandings” of disaster displacement, its dimensions and the challenges faced by everyone affected.

The agenda will identify key protection principles contained in existing regional and international agreements, and provide examples of practices and tools that can be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to displacement by disasters.

As the Nansen Initiative draws to a close at the end of this year, Kälin argues it “is now time to place cross-border displacement in the context of disasters and climate change back on the U.N.’s agenda”, and ensure states implement the agenda’s action plan.

As Volker Türk, assistant high commissioner with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) writes in the latest FMR, there is a legal gap when it comes to people who flee to other countries after a disaster.


For such displaced people, the UNHCR believes that temporary protection or stay arrangements might be the answer to clarifying rights and responsibilities. It developed guidelines for such arrangements in February 2014.

These aim to help governments respond to humanitarian crises and complex or mixed population movements (including boat arrivals), in situations where existing responses are unsuitable or inadequate, and to harmonise arrangements across regions.

The concept of temporary protection is actually a decades-old concept that has been applied in many different places and situations, especially with mass influxes of people, Türk notes.

The provision of temporary refuge to neighbours in distress, including those affected by disasters, has a strong tradition in Africa, writes Tamara Wood, who acted as a legal expert for the Nansen Initiative’s Horn of Africa consultation.

For example, in 2002, people fleeing the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo were allowed to stay in Uganda until they could go home, although they were not granted refugee status. Botswana and Tanzania have also admitted people hit by flooding in neighbouring states.

“However, such arrangements have generally been ad hoc and informal, with those displaced across borders relying on the goodwill of host communities and non-governmental organisations for their safety and survival,” Wood writes in FMR.

At the Nansen consultation for the Horn of Africa, it was agreed that temporary protection should build on existing laws, policies and practices in the region, and be consistent with obligations under international and regional law, to ensure these are not undermined.

States that have signed up to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights must assure a range of rights for every person within their territory, including non-nationals, Wood notes.

If existing requirements like this are used as the basis for formalised temporary protection measures, it could provide more guaranteed access to territory and human rights, and promote more consistent reception and treatment for people displaced across borders by disasters, Wood argues.

The Nansen Initiative will point the way forward on how to do this, but it will be up to governments to make it happen.

This blog draws on articles from the latest issue of Forced Migration Review: “Disasters and displacement in a changing climateMore information on the Thomson Reuters Foundation is available at


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Noel Casserly

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