Bina Desai is Head of Research & Policy at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Just a few months ago, the World Bank did something remarkable. It recommended open-access migration to Australia and New Zealand for populations of Small Island States in the Pacific that will be most affected by climate change. Opening up borders and access to labour markets now, the Bank argues, would give Australia and New Zealand control over migration from islands such as Tuvalu and Kiribati.
While current migration from the islands can still be deemed voluntary, future generations in the Pacific region may be forced to flee in the face of rising sea levels and extreme weather. Such a forced displacement scenario, driven by climate change, would be more difficult to manage and control.
For decades, climate-related extreme weather events have forced millions of people from their homes every year in various parts of the world. Each cyclone season in the Asia-Pacific region uproots thousands. Each poor rainy season in sub-Saharan Africa results in forced movements of both pastoralist and other communities. Weather-related disasters forced 23.5 million people to flee in 2016 alone, outnumbering displacement caused by conflict by more than three to one that year. At the same time, poverty, inequality and rapid urban growth put increasing numbers of people in harm’s way and cause precarious living conditions, further driving future risk of displacement. What forces people to move is not simply the fact that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time; they have to flee because they are vulnerable.
Vulnerability and exposure come together in multiple ways to generate complex risk landscapes where the lack of social protection, unequal development and governance failures become inseparable drivers of community tension, violent conflict, food insecurity or epidemics. These can trigger displacement and cross-border migration. Few countries are unaffected, but it is low-income countries that struggle most. Displacement in disasters is rarely accounted for in economic terms; if it were, the imperative to reduce its risk would be obvious.
Displacement in disasters is rarely accounted for in economic terms; if it were, the imperative to reduce its risk would be obvious.
Earlier this summer, governments, United Nations agencies, civil society representatives and a large number of experts convened in Cancún, Mexico, for the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. They reviewed progress against the global targets and indicators set out in the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which seeks to reduce the negative impact of disasters and manage future risk. Displacement was discussed too: in fact, countries are recognising more and more that forced displacement is both an important human consequence and a driver of disaster risk.
Many of the 197 signatory countries to the Sendai Framework are already experiencing significant disaster displacement and face the risk of increased climate-related displacement in the future. Yet national strategies to reduce disaster risk usually lack specific provisions to prevent and mitigate displacement.
Countries now need to take a critical look at the way they plan and execute evacuations and relocations. Evacuations are lifesaving, but can also result in large-scale and prolonged displacement. Planned relocations are even more challenging and are often politically charged. When developing and updating their national strategies for disaster risk reduction - a target to be achieved by 2020 - the minimum that countries should commit to is to account for how many people are displaced by disasters. This means collecting data on displacement not just immediately after an event, but also further down the line, months and years after, to better monitor who is still displaced and how many have found durable solutions.
It is heartening to see that countries and international agencies are recognising that investments in reducing disaster risk pay off in multiple ways. Such investment will see the cycles of recurrent and protracted displacement being broken up, contributing to sustainable solutions. But this can only happen if national disaster risk reduction strategies explicitly address displacement risk. Countries will have to identify appropriate targets and indicators for reducing new displacement. Importantly, displacement must ‘find a home’ within existing governance mechanisms for it to work.
We need not only a more comprehensive understanding of current disaster-related displacement but modelling of future risk scenarios
In addition, the inclusion of communities at risk and of those already displaced cannot amount to empty words, but must become common practice. Stepping up the allocation of sufficient and stable financing measures, as well as capacity to plan for, implement and monitor displacement and displacement risk are especially important for the countries most impacted by disasters.
For these elements to be effective, sufficient data and knowledge needs to be gathered to inform a robust understanding of disaster risk for different people in different hazard contexts. This requires not only a more comprehensive understanding of current disaster-related displacement but modelling of future risk scenarios, and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre is working on both areas, along with its partners.
Momentum-building across key global policy platforms can now bring about real change. Displacement can be reduced successfully and sustainably only if it is addressed within national poverty reduction strategies and social and economic development plans. Countries must consider the risk of displacement and its economic and social costs within regional and global agreements on trade and on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Internal displacement risks and their impact also need to be recognised and integrated into any future regulation of migration and refugee flows. The ongoing consultations on the development of two separate Global Compacts on refugees and on migration provide a unique opportunity to take full account of the conditions in the countries of origin and of how they drive the scale of internal displacement and cross-border movement, as well as to determine the possibilities of return.
The future of I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans will largely depend on whether or not countries decide to address these questions. Already, a significant number of Tuvaluans have moved from rural areas to urban centres – not entirely by choice, but also due to disaster risk and food insecurity that limit their options. The impact of climate change will continue to contribute to this trend. What is today still a weighing-up exercise of options for those affected may well turn into large-scale forced displacement in the next few decades.
This article was first published in Europe's World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.
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