Displacement, Natural Disasters, and Human Rights

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

October 17, 2008

In the course of the past year, over 400 natural disasters took 16,000 lives, affected close to 250 million people and displaced many millions. But many humanitarian actors continue to see natural disasters and those displaced by them as marginal to the central thrust of humanitarian action: responding to those affected by conflict.

From the beginning, those involved in drafting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement saw the need to recognize natural disasters as a principal cause of displacement and to ensure that the rights of those displaced by floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes were upheld. In this presentation, I would like to focus on:

  • similarities and differences between those internally displaced by conflict and by natural disasters
  • the international community’s response to natural disaster-induced displacement, with a particular focus on the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters
  • the potential impact of climate change on displacement

Disaster-induced and conflict-induced displacement

Those displaced, for whatever reasons, have certain characteristics in common. Let me begin by noting three of these similarities.

First, the human experiences of those displaced by natural disasters and conflicts are very similar. People displaced, for example, by both flooding and by fighting often lose family members, endure family separation, lose their possessions, and experience trauma and depression. They have similar protection and assistance needs. They lose important documents which limits their access to public services.[1] They lose property and it may take years (if ever) before they receive compensation for their loss. In both conflicts and natural disasters, vulnerable groups suffer more. For example, globally, for every one adult male who drowns in a flood, there are 3-4 women who die.[2] Sexual abuse and rape of women is often a tool of war while gender-based violence is unfortunately common among women displaced by both natural disasters and conflict. Children displaced by both natural disasters and conflicts are often more susceptible to recruitment by armed forces. Vulnerable groups also frequently experience discrimination in the provision of assistance. In many camps where persons displaced by conflict live, food is — at least initially — more likely to go to healthy and strong men than to children or the disabled. And in New Orleans, the elderly, the immigrants and African-American communities suffered the effects of Hurricane Katrina disproportionately.[3]

The problems that are often encountered by persons affected by the consequences of natural disasters include: unequal access to assistance; discrimination in aid provision; enforced relocation; sexual and gender-based violence; loss of documentation; recruitment of children into fighting forces; unsafe or involuntary return or resettlement; and issues of property restitution.[4] These are similar to the problems experienced by those displaced by conflicts.

Secondly, most people displaced by either conflicts or natural disasters remain within the borders of their country. They are internally displaced persons (IDPs) as defined in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and thus entitled to the full range of rights and responsibilities included therein. It is their national governments who are responsible for protecting and assisting them and with facilitating durable solutions for their displacement.

Thirdly, poverty makes things worse for both victims of natural disasters and conflict. Natural disasters in poorer countries have higher casualties than disasters of similar magnitude in wealthier countries. Similarly, there is a relationship between poverty and conflict. An analysis of state weakness in the developing world found a strong relationship between poverty and failed states which are more likely to have conflict-induced displacement. The 10 weakest states, according to economic, political security, and social welfare indicators are (in order of weakest to less weak): Somalia, Afghanistan, DRC, Iraq, Burundi, Sudan, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire[5] – all countries which have experienced major civil conflict – which has generated many displaced persons – in recent years.

There are other, less obvious similarities between those displaced by natural disasters and conflicts. The international response system to both natural disasters and conflict is fairly well-developed although in both cases, there seems to be a greater initial response to high-profile crises which diminishes as situations become protracted. The weakest point in the international system for both natural disasters and conflicts is in prevention or mitigation. In the case of natural disasters, early warning systems have been developed – although of course, more could be done.[6] But early warning systems alone are not enough. In the case of natural disasters, the international humanitarian community has come up with the Hyogo Plan of Action and the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction.[7] These offer concrete suggestions for reducing the human impact of natural disasters, but are unfortunately not yet priorities for most national governments or for international donors. In the field of conflict-prevention, there are many initiatives underway – by civil society, governments, international organizations – but the lack of political will and the pesky issue of sovereignty at times create insurmountable obstacles. Human rights activists, for example, long warned that the political situation in Rwanda was explosive just as humanitarian workers warned of an upcoming famine in Ethiopia as early as 1983. Early warning without early action does not prevent displacement.

Although research is scarce, there appear to be some differences between conflict-induced and natural disaster-induced displacement – although in most cases, the differences are not absolute, but rather are differences in degree.

First, solutions may be different for those displaced by natural disasters and by conflicts. For all IDPs, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement spell out three solutions — return to the place of origin, integration into the place of displacement, and settlement in another part of the country—and stress that IDPs should have the right to choose the solution. But in some natural disasters, IDPs do not have the option of return, e.g. Montserrat and those displaced by riverbank erosion. If predictions are correct that sea levels will rise as a result of climate change, the option of return for those displaced is likely to be difficult or non-existent. For IDPs displaced by conflict, return to the community of origin remains an option – even though it may be politically difficult and may take a long time to realize.

A second possible difference is that generally those displaced by natural disasters are likely to return home more rapidly than those displaced by conflicts. One of the few studies to systematically compare duration of displacement by its cause found in four South Asian countries that 80% of those displaced by natural disasters had been displaced for one year or less, while 57% of those displaced by armed conflict and 66% of those displaced by development projects had been displaced for more than 5 years.[8] However, this difference may also be one of degree. There are still Central Americans displaced from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 although there is no system for tracking and monitoring the extent to which they have found solutions. In both conflict- and natural disaster-induced displacement, sometimes governments simply decree that displacement has ended, as in Angola and Sierra Leone. The question of ‘when displacement ends?’ led the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to draft a Framework for Durable Solutions which is presently being field-tested. This Framework argues that the ending of displacement is a process through which the need for specialized assistance and protection diminishes. Ending displacement involves both the process by which solutions are found and the conditions of return, integration or re-settlement.[9]

A third difference – or difference in degree – is that the number of people who cross national borders because of natural disasters seems to be much lower than those displaced internally. In many cases, conflicts force people to leave not only their communities, but also their countries. Thus, it is common to have both refugees and IDPs from the same conflict, e.g. Sudanese displaced in Darfur and Sudanese refugees in neighboring Chad, Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and Iraqi IDPs.

Those who are forced to flee their countries solely because of natural disasters are not considered to be refugees under international law. In the case of the eruption of the volcano on Montserrat in 1995, which (unusually) permanently displaced about half of the country’s inhabitants, the response to the displaced was developed by Caribbean and the UK governments.[10] In other cases where people have crossed national borders because of natural disasters, such as those fleeing the Ethiopian famine in 1984-85, the humanitarian community has responded as if they were indeed refugees. However, in most cases the cause of famine is due as much to governmental policies as to natural disasters.[11] The Representative of the Secretary-General for the Human Rights of IDPs has argued that there may be a gap in legal protection for those forced to leave their own countries because of natural disasters or longer-term environmental degradation occasioned by climate change.[12]

The argument is sometimes made that national authorities are more likely to accept international assistance for people displaced by natural disasters than for those displaced by conflicts because it is less ‘political.’ However, the recent case of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar is evidence that acceptance of foreign assistance is far from a certain proposition. And three years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the US government was unwilling – or unable – to accept immediate offers of assistance.[13]

In conflict situations, multinational forces have been used in a number of situations, such as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq to protect the delivery of humanitarian relief.[14] But their presence is often controversial as many humanitarian actors feel that the involvement of military forces contradicts humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence.[15]

But there is a perception that the military is more generally accepted in natural disasters than in conflict.[16] However, as Kälin pointed out with respect to tsunami-affected countries:

While it is often the case that the military is the national institution most equipped with the logistics, personnel and supplies to undertake initial rescue and humanitarian response to large disasters, ongoing military control of aid and of camps can also endanger beneficiaries, because it can heighten the IDPs’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse as well as children’s military recruitment, and dampen displaced persons’ ability to control decisions affecting their lives. This risk is especially high in situations of internal armed conflict, where the proximity of the military can render the camps a military target for no-state armed groups.[17]

Human Rights and Natural Disasters

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, there was recognition that disaster response involves more than technical expertise and efficiency and consists of more than a delivery of humanitarian assistance. Growing recognition of the need to respect, uphold, and promote the human rights of those affected by natural disasters, whether displaced or not, was the driving force between efforts by the RSG to develop Operational Guidelines for Human Rights and Natural Disaster. These guidelines, which were formally adopted by the InterAgency Standing Committee in June 2006, are presently being used to train disaster responders on ways of ensuring that human rights are protected in the midst of disaster.[18]

The Guidelines suggest a human rights lens approach to planning both the initial emergency and longer-term response. In particular, the Guidelines are based on the fact that people do not lose their basic human rights as a result of a natural disaster or their displacement. Rather all of those affected by natural disasters, including those who are displaced, are entitled to the protection of all relevant human rights guarantees. As residents, and usually citizens of the country in which they are living, they are entitled to the protections afforded to all residents and citizens even though they may have particular needs related to the disaster and thus require specific assistance and protection measures.

As with all situations of internal displacement, t he primary duty and responsibility to provide such protection and assistance lies with the national authorities of the affected countries. Those affected by natural disasters have the right to request and receive such protection and assistance from their governments.

The Operational Guidelines stress that human rights encompass not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. However, in the midst of a disaster, it is often difficult to simultaneously promote all rights for all of those affected. Thus for practical reasons, the Operational Guidelines divide human rights into four groups, namely:

(A) rights related to physical security and integrity (e.g. protection of the right to life and the right to be free of assault, rape, arbitrary detention, kidnapping, and threats to these rights);

(B) rights related to basic necessities of life (e.g. the rights to food, drinking water, shelter, adequate clothing, adequate health services, and sanitation);

(C) rights related to other economic, social and cultural protection needs (e.g. the rights to be provided with or have access to education, to receive restitution or compensation for lost property, and to work); and

(D) rights related to other civil and political protection needs (e.g. the rights

to religious freedom and freedom of speech, personal documentation, political participation, access to courts, and freedom from discrimination).

The Operational Guidelines suggest that the first two groups of rights may be the most relevant during the emergency, life-saving phase. Thus in the initial disaster response, it is usually more important to ensure adequate access to water than to provide replacement identity cards to those displaced. However, the guidelines insist that only the full respect of all four groups of rights can ensure adequate protection of the human rights of those affected by natural disasters, including of those who are displaced.[19]

The guidelines go on to state that “in all cases States have an obligation to respect, protect and to fulfill the human rights of their citizens and of any other persons in their territory or under their jurisdiction.”[20] States thus have a responsibility: to prevent violations of these rights from occurring or re-occurring; to stop them when they do occur, and to ensure reparation and full rehabilitation if a violation has happened.

When governments are unwilling or unable to fulfill these responsibilities, the international community needs to support and supplement the efforts of the government and local authorities. And these organizations as well – UN agencies, international and national non-governmental organizations, civil society, and IDP communities themselves – have a responsibility to ensure that their approaches and programs incorporate a human rights focus.

In fact, most often, rights are violated not because of conscious intention but because of the lack of awareness or planning based on a rights-based approach. Thus in the United States, the evacuation plans for New Orleans in 2005 were based on private vehicles – even though there were racial and class differences in vehicle ownership. While most middle class white people had access to private cars, many poor and African-American residents did not.[21] More recently, in the evacuation of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Gustav in August 2008, it was clear that officials had still not heeded the lessons learned from Katrina. While evacuation plans provided bus transportation for those without cars, displaced New Orleans residents were taken to large communal shelters while those who evacuated by car were directed to churches, private homes and hotels.[22]

Experience has shown while patterns of discrimination emerge during the initial emergency response phase, the longer that displacement lasts, the greater the risk of human rights violations.

The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement developed a manual on the Operational Guidelines to provide more concrete guidance to disaster responders and is currently being revised in light of experiences in the field. Presently both Brookings and the Protection Cluster Working Group are organizing training sessions for government officials responsible for disaster response as well as non-governmental organizations. Such training is necessary in order to ensure that a rights-based approach to disaster response is incorporated into all phases of operations.

Climate change

Walter Kälin has summarized the negative impacts of climate change on displacement as follows:

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rising sea levels in addition to a higher frequency of storms and floods will impact on tens of millions of people, in particular in coastal areas and on islands. Water availability will be reduced in certain areas, especially the Mediterranean and Middle East, Southern Africa and Latin America, exposing hundreds of millions of people to water stress. Crop yields will be reduced in certain parts of Africa, increasing the likelihood of additional millions of people at risk of hunger. Overall, the areas most affected by climate change will be Africa, the Asian mega deltas and small islands.[23]

Climate change in itself does not directly displace people. Rather climate change may produce environmental effects which make it difficult for people to survive where they are. While there are considerable differences of opinion about the impact of climate change on displacement, there does seem to be a consensus around two particular aspects of climate change which are expected to increase displacement.[24]

First, the number and severity of sudden-onset natural disaster, particularly hydrometeorological events, is increasing which in turn displace people. As Margareta

Wahlström has pointed out, “over the past 30 years, disasters – storms, floods and droughts –have increased threefold according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).”[25]

A second trend which is generally accepted is that global warming will cause an increase in sea levels which in turn will displace people. The most recent IPCC report projects temperatures to increase by between 1.8 degrees C and 4 degrees C, resulting in sea levels rising by between .2 and .6 meters by 2100, with a greater rise a possibility. According to a World Bank study, sea levels rising a single meter would displace 56 million people in 84 developing countries.[26]

Further, if rising temperature trends continue, widespread deglaciation of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets would occur over an extended period of time. The complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels 7 meters; the melting of the West Antarctic sheet would raise levels another 5 meters, drastically impacting the earth’s population centers.[27] While this projection comes from the IPCC, other scholars raise even more alarming scenarios and projections. A recent report by the International Peace Academy, for example, argues that in the worst-case scenario, the breakoff of the west Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets would raise sea levels by 15 meters. If the more stable east Antarctic ice sheet melts, sea levels could rise by 60 meters.[28]

Countries most affected by rising sea levels are small island states, such as the Pacific islands, and countries with low-lying coastal areas. A recent study by Sugata Hazra found that during the last 30 years, roughly 80 square kilometers of the Sundarban islands in India have disappeared, displacing more than 600 families and submerging two islands. The Sundarban islands are among the world’s largest collection of river delta islands populated by 4 million people on the Indian side of the border. While there is a natural process of islands shifting size and shape, the study concludes that there is little doubt that human-induced climate change has made them particularly vulnerable.[29] The small island country of Tuvalu has reportedly reached an agreement with the government of New Zealand that its citizens can resettle in New Zealand in the event that rising sea levels make continued residence on Tuvalu impossible.[30]

A third area where climate change is expected to result in increased displacement is the area of so-called slow-onset disaster in which climate change has specific long-term environmental effects over time such as desertification and other changes in weather patterns, which means that people’s livelihoods are no longer sustainable and they are forced to migrate to other places.

This is the most complicated relationship and one where further reflection and analysis are needed. The relationship between environmental change, poverty, population growth and displacement is a complex one. People make decisions over time to leave their communities for a complex interplay of reasons and, it is difficult – actually so far, impossible — to single out the impact of the environmental effects of climate change on these decisions.

It seems indisputable that climate change will produce environmental changes which make it difficult or impossible for people to sustain their livelihoods. Traditionally, people who have left their communities because they are poor or in search of other livelihoods are considered to be migrants: internal migrants for those who remain within the borders of their own country and international migrants for those who travel to other countries. Weather patterns clearly play a role in contributing to poverty, but are certainly not the only factor.

In fact, the interconnections between poverty and the environment need much more analysis. As Longeran argues, generalizations about the relationship between environmental degradation and population movement mask a great deal of the complexity which characterizes migration decision-making. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to isolate the specific contribution of environmental change in many forms of population movements.[31] McDowell and Morell argue that many situations commonly considered as environmental displacement should more accurately be considered as the impact of development.[32]

The key factor in slow-onset disasters seems to be their impact on livelihoods; most commonly drought makes it impossible for farmers to support their families. They have to move elsewhere, the argument goes, because they can no longer survive at home. Moreover, because this is due to forces beyond their control – climate change – they should be treated differently than migrants. But economic migrants have always moved for exactly the same reason: they can no longer survive at home because their livelihoods have disappeared. Many, perhaps most, of the world’s migrants are forced to move; they do not make the choice freely to leave their communities in ‘search of a better life’ — a higher income or improved access to services. Rather they leave because they cannot survive in their home communities. Plantations and export agriculture have displaced subsistence farmers. Population increases mean that sons (and they usually are sons) do not inherit sufficient land to support their families. Deforestation has meant the disappearance of habitats which used to support communities but can no longer do so. Or governments make decisions which eliminate the possibility of people to make a living in their traditional sectors; whole industries in Latin America have been effectively wiped out because of government decisions on trade and tariffs. Do people who can no longer survive because droughts are lasting longer deserve more generous treatment than those who leave because there isn’t enough land to support them, as in Burundi? Or because deforestation has increased to such a degree, as in Haiti, that whole areas of the country can no longer support farming communities? Most of the irregular migrants traveling by boat to European shores do so because they do not have livelihoods or possibilities of jobs back home. There is a danger of privileging those leaving because of environmental changes due to climate change over those leaving because of environmental changes caused by poverty and poor governance.

Concluding thoughts

As the InterAgency Standing Committee emphasized in adopting the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, it is essential to consider the human rights of those displaced by natural disasters in developing effective humanitarian response. Presently a wide range of actors is involved in disaster response, including governments of affected countries, local/national civil society organizations, UN agencies and international NGOs, donor governments and those who are directly affected by the disasters.

Although there is growing recognition that those affected by natural disasters are in need of protection, considerable work is needed before this recognition is reflected on the ground. For example, training on the Operational Guidelines should be incorporated into existing training programs of UN agencies and NGOs to ensure that they are mainstreamed into on-going programs. With the implementation of the cluster approach to humanitarian response, a lead agency should be designated to ensure the protection of those affected by natural disasters. The UN resident representative or humanitarian coordinator is to consult with UNHCR, UNICEF and OHCHR to determine which agency is best placed in a particular situation to take on the responsibilities for protection. But agencies are concerned about their capacities to take on additional responsibilities and about a consequent weakening of their traditional mandates.[33]

While there is growing recognition of the need for a rights-based approach to natural disasters, institutions at all levels must change in order to ensure that those who are affected by earthquakes and floods are protected as well as fed.

[1] Walter Kälin, for example, found that 70% of the tsunami-affected population in one country had lost their documentation. Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters: A Working Visit to Asia by the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Walter Kälin, 27 February-5 March 2005. Washington: Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 2005, p. 20.

[2] Lorena Aguilar, “Acknowledging the Linkages: Gender and Climate Change,” Presentation at the World Bank’s Workshop on Social Dimensions of Climate Change, March 2008.

[3] Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Durham, NC: Institute for Southern Studies, January 2008.

[4] IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Washington: Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006, p. 8.

[5] Susan E. Rice and Stewart Patrick Index of State Weakness in the Developing World, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008, p. 10.

[6] See for example: IASC’s Humanitarian Early Warning Service which was developed by the World Food Program

[7] See for related materials.

[8] Calcutta Research Group, Voices of the Internally Displaced in South Asia, Kolkata: CRG, 2006, p. 121.

[9]Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement and Georgetown University, When Displacement Ends: A Framework for Durable Solutions. June 2007


[11] See the classic work by Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

[12] Walter Kälin, “Displacement Caused by the Effects of Climate Change: Who will be affected and what are the gaps in the normative frameworks for their protection?” Background Paper submitted by the Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Oslo, Norway, October 2008.

[13] See Anne Richard, Role Reversal: Offers of Help from other Countries in response to Hurricane Katrina, Washington: Center for TransAtlantic Relations, 2006.

[14] Richard F. Grimmett, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad: 1798-2006.” CRS Report for Congress, Updated 8 January, 2007.; Tim Morris, “Civil-Military Relations in Afghanistan.” FRM 13, June 2002,; Taylor B. Seybolt, Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[15] See, for example, the guidelines developed by InterAction and the US Institute for Peace on civil-military relations in humanitarian operations.

[16] See for example, Sharon Wiharta, Hassan Ahmad, Jean-Yves Haine, Josefina Löfgren and T im Randall, The Effectiveness of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response, Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2008.

[17] Kälin, op cit., p. 17.

[18] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit..

[19] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit. pg. 7.

[20] IASC, Operational Guidelines, op.cit. pg. 9

[21] Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis, “Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”, Institute for Southern Studies, January, 2008. pg. 13

[22] “Never Again, Again”, New York Times, September 20, 2008.

[23]Walter Kälin, “The Climate Change- Displacement Nexus”, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, July 16, 2008.

[24] Human tide: the real migration crisis; Christian Aid report, May 2007, p. 5. Accessed online November 26, 2007;

Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change, London: HM Treasury, January, 2007.

[25] Margareta Wahlström, “the Humanitarian Impact of Climate Change,” UN Chronicle Online Edition,

[26] “Climate changes and impact on coastal countries”,,contentMDK:21215328~pagePK:64165401~piPK:64165026~theSitePK:469382,00.html 

[27] Summary for Policymakers, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment, April 2007, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, p. 17. Accessed online, 13 November 2007.

[28] Nils Peter Gleditsch, Ragnhild Nordas, and Idean Salehyan, “Climate Change and conflict: the Migration Link,” International Peace Academy, Coping with Crisis Working Paper, May 2007, pp. 8-9.

[29] Somini Sengupta, “Living on the edge: Indians watch their islands wash away,” International Herald Tribune, 10 April 2007.

[30] Alex Kirby, “Pacific Islanders Flee Rising Seas”, BBC News, 9 October, 2001.

[31] Lonergam, op cit., 1998, pp. 11-12. Note the contrast with Norman Myers who states “But those people who migrate because they suffer outright poverty are frequently driven also by root factors of environmental destitution. It is their environmental plight as much as any other factor that makes them economically impoverished.” 2005, op cit.,p. 2.

[32] Christopher McDowell and Gareth Morrell, Non-conflict displacement: a thematic literature and organizational review, prepared for IDMC, 10 August 2007.

[33] See Roberta Cohen, “For Disaster IDPs: an institutional gap” 13 October 2008