Migration: climate breakdown drives internal displacement to record 55 million

Jennifer VenisThursday 12 August 2021

Despite restrictions on movement resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the highest number of people becoming internally displaced in a decade, at 40.5 million. The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) globally reached a record 55 million in December 2020, according to a report from the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Although 85 per cent of all known IDPs have fled conflict, disasters caused more than three-quarters of 2020’s new displacements. Of those, 98 per cent were triggered by weather-related hazards, such as storms and floods, which are increasing in intensity and frequency due to factors including climate breakdown.

‘Natural hazards and climate variations that are making them more frequent and intense are not the only factors behind the high number of disaster displacements,’ the IDMC report states. ‘Human practices, including deforestation, unsustainable urbanisation and both the construction and lack of maintenance of grey infrastructure, also increase displacement risk.’

The report adds that ‘beyond hazard intensity, people’s exposure and vulnerability are an important part of the risk equation and addressing them must be a priority.'

The report also flags a connection between climate vulnerability and conflict: 95 per cent of 2020’s new conflict-driven displacements occurred in countries with high or very high vulnerability to climate change, according to the 2019 Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Index.

There is a strong perception that the international community has taken its eye off the ball in IDP assistance and solutions more generally

Professor David Cantor
Founding Director, Refugee Law Initiative, University of London

Aleksandar Stojicevic, Refugee Officer on the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and a managing partner at MKS Lawyers in Vancouver, tells Global Insight, ‘ultimately, if the migration patterns of these people were not being changed, and their economic situation, the ways they make a living, were not being changed by climate change, they wouldn’t be driven into conflict with other groups’.

He says ‘there’s probably going to be more and more disputes over scarce resources that are tied to climate change, and as unusual weather events occur regularly, that’s going to happen more often, not less. It’s then the protection you require from the consequences of climate change.’

The combination of conflict and disasters, the report says, ‘led to many people being displaced for a second or even third time, increasing and prolonging their vulnerability’.

In Yemen, for example, where disasters triggered a record level of new displacements, floods caused thousands of IDPs to flee again, after already having fled the country’s six-year conflict and the world’s most acute humanitarian crisis.

The report adds that ‘when disasters strike camps and informal urban settlements, IDPs and refugees are often pushed into secondary displacement, potentially trapping them in a downward spiral of vulnerability and risk’.

Stojicevic highlights that ‘in Bangladesh with the Rohingya, most of the places that are being used for refugee sheltering are in areas that are the most vulnerable to climate change, long-term, and to weather-related displacement, short-term. Every monsoon season now, you have to be ready for moving camps. In terms of disaster planning and housing migrants, governments have to start thinking about more mobile and nimble solutions.’

This requires political will, says Stojicevic, and for displacement camp models to be changed, away from using camps and towards moving people into urban areas and accepting that they’re part of the permanent landscape, even if they’re only being offered temporary protection. ‘The reality is, if the developed world is paying for people to stay [in developing countries] instead of spreading them around, this problem will remain,’ he says.

Stojicevic points to how certain places will become uninhabitable, thanks to the expected drop in the worldwide population and greater urbanisation, in combination with climate change. The result will be that international displacement will become worse rather than better.

‘And the reality is, there is no mechanism to deal with that in our international protection regime’, he says. ‘IDPs and people who are climate migrants basically aren’t covered in any legal definition in the domestic laws of most countries.’

Professor David Cantor is Professor of Refugee Protection in Forced Migration Studies and Founding Director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He says that ‘refugees have an established international legal protection regime that’s well recognised. By contrast, IDPs don’t have a specific international legal status, at least in most regions and at the global level. There’s no one institution mandated exclusively with the protection of IDPs, but rather different aspects of assistance and protection are shared out between different UN agencies under the cluster system, which has been around for about 15 years or so. The responsibilities are rather more diffuse in strict legal terms.’

He believes ‘there is a strong perception that the international community has taken its eye off the ball in IDP assistance and solutions more generally.’

Part of the reason, he argues, is that conflict-driven IDPs are seen as a problem for the Global South. ‘Refugees cross borders into rich countries (as well as into poor countries), which set the international agenda,’ he says.

Cantor adds that ‘the refugee crisis in Europe was 1.2 million asylum seekers entering 28 of the richest countries in the world. In the same year, for example, the number of people internally displaced in Yemen […] exceeded that at 2.2 million.’

However, he says ‘international law is starting to increasingly harden the international protection due to IDPs’. And in 2019, the UN Secretary General created a High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, tasked with developing concrete recommendations to address displacement. Its report is due in September.

Cantor says that ‘at the national level, there are a number of countries with laws and policies to deal with internal displacement in the context of conflict […] With disaster displacement, a lot of response measures exist under a different framework that isn't badged as IDP protection but is rather disaster management and relief.’

‘Where the displacement aspect of disasters isn’t included in disaster management and relief frameworks or elsewhere, then it’s a problem,’ he says, but ‘talking about disasters in terms of internal displacement many open a door to developing law and policy to deal with restitution of the rights of IDPs.’

Image: Sebastian Delgado C / Shutterstock.com

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