Comments on FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework

February 26, 2010

We are providing these comments from our experience of working on issues related to internal displacement for the past 16 years. In particular the Project oversaw the development of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which were presented to the United Nations in 1998 and which have become the accepted international human rights framework for the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs), including those who are displaced because of natural disasters. For the past five years, we have worked to strengthen the operational response of the humanitarian community to persons affected by natural disasters by developing and disseminating guidelines, manuals, and training materials to governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations. We have held workshops on these issues in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States.

We acknowledge and commend the consultative process in the development of the National Disaster Recovery Framework with its emphasis on family and individual empowerment, pre-disaster planning, partnership and inclusiveness and communication. 

Given the fact that natural disasters often displace people, we believe the process would benefit from awareness of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. At the 2005 World Summit, the United States joined 191 other countries in the UN General Assembly in acknowledging the Guiding Principles as an important framework. The Resolution of the General Assembly states the following: 

“We recognize the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as an important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons and resolve to take effective measures to increase the protection of internally displaced persons.”[1]  

The Principles set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments toward them. Relevant to displacement in both natural disasters and armed conflict, they cover material assistance, physical safety, and the fundamental rights of the affected population. Although not a binding document like a treaty, the Principles are based on international human rights and humanitarian law.  

Non-discrimination is a basic tenet of the Guiding Principles. When distributing aid and otherwise assisting people, discrimination is prohibited on the basis of race, color, national, ethnic or social origin, social status, disability or similar criteria. Consultation with the displaced is of cardinal importance, especially in the recovery and reconstruction phases. The protection of property rights is another important component of disaster response. Governments must help the displaced to recover, where possible, their property and possessions or provide or assist the persons in obtaining compensation or some form of just reparation. National authorities are also responsible for establishing conditions and providing the means to allow IDPs to return to their communities or to resettle in another part of the country. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of IDPs in planning and managing their return, integration or resettlement in another part of the country. 

Given the acknowledgement of the importance of the Guiding Principles by the US government,[2] and the guidance the Principles can provide to ensure non-discrimination and the upholding of the rights of displaced persons, we strongly recommend the incorporation of the Guiding Principles into the Draft Framework. Those displaced by natural disasters, whether hurricanes or wildfires, are internally displaced persons and thus these Principles offer guidance to those responsible for protecting and assisting them. 

The Draft National Disaster Recovery Framework refers specifically to non-discrimination only once, in the checklist for the non-profit sector. We would assert that all state, local and federal actors should be required to undergo specific operational awareness training in non-discrimination—what discrimination is, that it is unlawful, how it may develop even when unintentional, how it might manifest itself and how to prevent it. Two useful resources in this regard are The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and Protecting Persons Affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights in Natural Disasters, both of which offer specific guidance relating to non-discrimination and other forms of protection. 

In particular, the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters provide, in a user-friendly format, practical guidance on many of the protection challenges encountered in natural disasters such as evacuations and relocations, protection against violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, accessibility of goods and services, etc. Non-discrimination is emphasized throughout.  

Finally, a few specific recommendations: 

  • The Framework should include clear guidelines on forced evacuations and relocations (which may become an issue in Alaska with indigenous peoples who may have to be relocated because of coastal storms and surges and in California due to wildfires, etc.).
  • Although issues of access are mentioned throughout the Framework, the need for community-based identification of persons who may need special assistance in emergency evacuations needs more attention. Such persons include older people in nursing homes, prisoners and juveniles in detention, persons in hospitals and mental institutions, persons with disabilities and others who cannot evacuate on their own because of reduced mobility or because they are in a locked facility.
  • The protection of women and children from sexual violence and exploitation in shelters and the prevention of and response to domestic violence, including child abuse should be noted. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and other organizations have issued advice to families regarding the increased risk of sexual assault and domestic violence (including child abuse) following natural disasters. The Draft Framework does not address this issue. Shelter managers, law enforcement, health care, community leaders and local service organizations must be prepared to take steps to prevent such violence, offer assistance to victims, and provide information to the public on prevention.

Finally, as questions often arise as to “when displacement ends,” we have developed a Framework for Durable Solutions to help define the situations when it can be said that the formerly displaced no longer require specific attention as IDPs.  

We hope that these comments are helpful to you in the process of revising and strengthening the National Disaster Recovery Framework. Listed below are resources which have proven useful to governments in developing their policies, frameworks, laws and action plans in responding to those affected by natural disasters, including internally displaced persons.  


The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

Protecting Persons affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, United Nations

Protecting Internally Displaced Persons: A Manual for Law and Policy-Makers

Addressing Internal Displacement: A Framework for National Responsibility

When Displacement Ends: A Framework for Durable Solutions

[1]UN General Assembly, 60/1. World Summit Outcome, A/Res/60/1, 24 October 2005.

[2] USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy, U.S. Agency for International Development, October 2004, p. 6.