The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced this month that the disaster costs in 2017 for the United States over weather and climate disasters reached $306 billion. Underneath this record-breaking cost lies disaster displacement. Disaster displacement is a “situation where people are forced to leave their homes as a result of disaster, or in order to avoid the impact of an immediate and foreseeable natural hazard.” Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the 2017 Mexico earthquake, for example, all have forced a great number of people to leave their homes. Although disaster displacement happens frequently worldwide, we rarely see “disaster-displaced persons,” or “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) mentioned in the media. Disaster-displaced persons often are the most precariously positioned in society. Like many other forced migrants, they require protection and assistance.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a leading organization in providing analysis and information regarding internal displacement, estimated that 24.6 million people were newly displaced in 2016. IDMC said in a recent report that despite the global scale of disaster displacement, the issue remains overshadowed by the international humanitarian focus on more traditional conflict-refugees and migrants.
Refugees is a specific term based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. These individuals are forced to cross international borders because of so-called “civil grounds,” such as the well-founded fear of persecution based on one’s religious beliefs. In contrast, disaster-displaced persons are forcibly uprooted because of natural (or other) disasters and these people do not necessarily cross international borders.
Displacement creates and compounds vulnerability. The meaning, causes, and impacts of vulnerability vary with the context. In the context of disasters, a person can become vulnerable because of “the diminished capacity […] to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural […] hazard.” Shelter is a basic human need under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Displacement creates vulnerability because it undermines a person’s basic needs. When a person is displaced because of a disaster, this person meets new challenges from healthcare, to clean water. Other factors such as age, gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health, and mobility also can increase individual vulnerability. Displacement might thus compound the already existing vulnerability of the disaster-displaced person and make the individual or group even more vulnerable than before.
Disaster displacement can be internal or cross-border. In the United States, an estimate of 30,000 people sought shelter within the United States as Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. Most of these people, at least temporarily, have become internally displaced. Persons internally displaced due to disasters fall under the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (the Guiding Principles). Unlike the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol that establish the international refugee protection system, the Guiding Principles is a soft law and is not legally binding, but provides the foundation for protecting IDPs.
Effects of sea-level rise or famines, for instance, might force individuals to move across international borders. Small islanders or people who reside in coastal areas might need a planned relocation to adapt to the sea-level rise. Residents on the Solomon Islands or Bangladesh, for example, have expressed concerns about the sea-level rising and their disappearing land. Such relocation might involve moving to another country. Under the current international law, these people fall out of the domains of the Guiding Principles and refugee protection under international law because instead of moving internally, they cross international borders based on “non-civil grounds.” In response, the Nansen Initiative, a State-led consultative process, was launched and recommended the Nansen Initiative Protective Agenda to address cross-border disaster displacement. The Platform on Disaster Displacement follows up with the Agenda and aims to implement the recommendations.
Recognizing the complexity and fluidity of disaster displacement is necessary to better protect and assist disaster-displaced populations. This is even more important in today’s world because a temporary displacement can become a protracted situation. IDPs that leave their homes due to disasters might also cross borders to seek shelter. In both the U.S. and international context, disaster planning, national policies, and international responses must account for the experiences induced by disaster displacement. A state’s ability to respond to these challenges in disaster displacement is key to population health and inclusive crisis governance.
About the author: Chien-yu Liu, SJD (Doctor of Juridical Science, Georgetown University), LLM (New York University) and LLB (National Taiwan University), is a communicator and researcher specializing in gender, disasters, forced migration, humanitarian crises, and development issues. Chien-yu is dedicated to social justice issues in the United States and abroad. This piece offers the author’s opinion and does not represent or reflect the stance of any of the organization the author is affiliated with.