Disaster Displacement: Gaps in International Norms

by Kristen Boon

There is an interesting interview with Professor Walter Kahlin, former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, on disaster displacement over at the IPI’s Global Observatory.

He discusses why the current international law regime on refugees is incomplete when it comes to displacement.  He explains:

Back in 2010, Haiti was hit by one of the most devastating earthquakes, and hundreds of thousands who were displaced within the country immediately found refuge in makeshift camps. But many showed up already during the very first night—the first few days after the earthquake—at the border of the neighboring Dominican Republic. The question for the president was: should he open the borders or should he keep them closed? And he couldn’t get any guidance from any kind of international law because these people, even though they didn’t have any opportunity at that time for their wounded family members to access medical assistance (this came only later), they were not protected as refugees or in any other kind of quality by international law. A gap.

The IMO concurs, stating:  “climate refugees fall through the cracks of asylum law.”   This is clearly an area ripe for reflection.    Do climate refugees have a right of access to neighboring countries?   What should the definition of “climate refugee” be?    More importantly, given the problem of differentiating between climate disasters and natural disasters, it makes it very difficult to determine the different obligations of the international community.    There appears to be little appetite to revise the 1951 convention on the status of refugees to include climate refugees, which would afford them protections akin to political refugees.  Interestingly, the UNHCR has spoken out against this approach, claiming that while environmental degradation can contribute to forced, cross-border migration, this should not translate into more grounds for granting refugee status.

There are some interesting initiatives afoot to fill the gap.   The Nansen initiative, a self-described  “bottom-up” initiative is starting to canvas the norms that might apply.   Information is available here.   The ILC is studying the related question of protection of persons in the event of natural disasters here.   Academics have entered the debate.  Professor Katrina Wyman at NYU has canvassed the current models and proposed a “rights model” in an article here, which would boost the levels of migrants from developing to developed countries to begin with.  She writes:

How might immigration policy be changed to increase resilience in developing countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change? One option would be to make it easier for citizens of developing countries that are vulnerable to climate change to move to destination countries temporarily or permanently, for example, by boosting allowable immigration levels from these countries.

Do our readers have any other suggestions on important sources or approaches to this important new international issue?

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/04/15/disaster-displacement-gaps-international-norms/

3 Responses

  1. This classic piece on gaps in international law arrives at a solution which I would venture to suggest might work here as well.

  2. In my 2008 dissertation, I examined different options for an international law regime to protect “environmentally displaced persons” and concluded that different solutions may need to be found, depending on whether displacement occurs within or between states. An extended refugee definition would make little sense for legal and practical reasons, but even approaches based on environmental or human rights law are not without problems. I suggested that an effective and attractive answer to large scale environmental displacement could consist in a temporary protection regime, similar to the scheme adopted by the EU in 2001 to deal with the mass displacement of people from Kosovo.

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