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Home > Get the facts > Why people need to leave

Why people need to leave

Disasters and the environment

Hurricane in weather mapAnother major reason for people to leave home is because of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and cyclones. This is likely to become more frequent with the impacts of climate change.

‘Disaster displacement’, as it is often called, will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century.

Many more people are displaced for these reasons than those who flee conflict and persecution. Many people are displaced by sudden disasters such as storms, floods and earthquakes. However, increasingly more people are forced to move by disasters that move more slowly, such as droughts and sea-level rises, or because of the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

People forced to leave for these reasons are not considered ‘refugees’ under international law, although sometimes the term ‘climate refugees’ is used. International refugee law is not well-suited to address this form of displacement.

Floods, earthquakes and other disasters, environmental degradation and climate change all force people to move. Many more people are displaced for these reasons than those who flee conflict and persecution. Many people are displaced by sudden disasters such as storms, floods and earthquakes. However, increasingly more people are forced to move by disasters that move more slowly, such as droughts and sea-level rises, or because of the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

Who is affected?

While we do not know exactly how many of these people move across international borders, we can get some idea of its scale in the estimates of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The Centre has found that, since 2008, each year an average of 25.4 million people have been displaced internally (within their own borders) by disasters such as storms, floods and earthquakes, although this varies widely from year to year. Developing countries are most affected. In 2015, 41% of people displaced by disasters lived in South Asia and and 44% were from East Asia and the Pacific. India, China, Nepal, Myanmar and the Philippines were the main countries affected. While they may get immediate disaster relief, it is unusual for there to be continued support. Closer to home, people living on Pacific island nations are highly likely to be affected. Disasters such as storms and floods often strike. As well, these countries are threatened by rising sea levels and sea temperatures. Pacific peoples stress that they do not want to leave home when faced by disasters and climate change, and would much rather maintain their cultural identity, sovereignty and connection to their homes. Instead, they argue for measures that would lessen the effects of climate change and disasters. While there are some figures about people displaced by sudden events, there has been little research into the numbers of people displaced by climate change and environmental degradation. It is likely, however, that these numbers are growing, and will only increase in the future. Most people affected move within their home country, but some are forced to cross borders to find safety. While it is often thought that people will only be displaced temporarily, people can be displaced for a long time, sometimes for years. Returning home may be difficult.

The challenges

There is little monitoring of this form of protracted displacement, and few international avenues for protection and assistance. There is no system for monitoring those who are displaced for a long time, and host states are not required to provide humanitarian assistance. People displaced by disasters and other environmental causes are not generally refugees under the Refugee Convention, as they are not fleeing persecution. However, those who are affected still need solutions. As well as helping the displaced, it is also important to focus on reducing the risks of disasters. Measures need to be introduced to lessen the effect of disasters and climate change on people’s safety, shelter and livelihoods. This will require improving the collection of data, and analysis of regional and national risks.

The Nansen Initiative

In 2012, the Norwegian and Swiss governments introduced the Nansen Initiative. This initiative was an intergovernmental process ofconsultation to address international displacement because of disasters, climate change and and environmental degradation. The aim was to reach agreement on principles and practices to protect the people affected. Regional consultations were conducted in the Pacific, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central America. The outcomes were discussed at a global consultation in Geneva in October 2015. At the consultation, 109 governments endorsed a Protection Agenda to strengthen the protection of cross-border displaced persons. The focus of the Protection Agenda is on providing tools to help displaced persons, and to support countries and communities affected by disasters. The Agenda also focuses on managing the risks of disasters and climate change. It includes tools to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience, to help people move before disaster strikes, and help people so they do not need to cross borders.

The Platform on Disaster Displacement

The work of the Nansen Initiative will be built on by the Platform on Disaster Displacement. This was launched in May 2016, during the World Humanitarian Summit. The Platform will work to implement the recommendations of the Nansen Initiative.

Read some of the key research on the topic:

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