The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration organized an expert consultation on “Guidance on protecting people from disasters and environmental change through planned relocation.” An overview of the project is synthesized below.

Disasters displaced an average of 27 million people per year between 2008 and 2013 – a number which will likely increase as a result of two factors. First, climate change is expected to result in more frequent and intense weather events, sea level rise, and other hazards and environmental changes associated with a warming climate. Second, demographic trends of overall population growth and higher concentrations of people in coastal areas mean that natural hazards will likely affect more people in the future. In this context, moving and settling people in new locations might become an increasingly viable protection option. Many governments are already contemplating and implementing measures to move vulnerable populations out of harm’s way. However, the relocation of at-risk populations to protect them from disasters and the impacts of environmental change, including the effects of climate change carries serious risks for those it is intended to benefit, including the disruption of livelihoods and loss of cultural practices.

Determining when to relocate at-risk populations in order to protect them and to mitigate displacement will vary from context to context, depending on the nature of the hazard or environmental change and social, political, and economic factors. Governments may undertake relocation as an anticipatory measure where hazards threaten to render certain areas uninhabitable. Indeed, this type of intervention may be an effective measure to reduce disaster risk, as affirmed by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

In Fiji, for example, the government is proactively assessing the vulnerabilities of rural communities in anticipation of the possibility that they may need to be moved. In the US, a number of Alaskan indigenous communities have sought government support to move for over a decade because environmental changes exacerbated by the effects of climate change (e.g. loss of sea ice, coastal erosion, melting permafrost) have made it difficult to continue living there. In other instances, governments may take reactive measures to relocate people following a large-scale disaster in order to protect them from future harm. For example, following the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, the Philippines embarked on an ambitious plan to move 200,000 households—1 million people—to safer areas.

At the same time, in the context of climate change, planned relocation may serve as an effective adaptation strategy. The Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention Climate Change, meeting in Cancún in 2010, encouraged enhanced action and international cooperation on planned relocation as one of three types of human mobility that should be considered within climate change adaptation measures. While considerable attention has been focused on migration and displacement, there has been less focus on planned relocation as an effective strategy for reducing disaster risk, enhancing resilience, and adapting to climate change. Analogous experience demonstrates that relocating people is a complex endeavor with the strong potential to violate basic rights and leave people much worse off. States faced with situations where planned relocation may be needed lack guidance on the basic principles and rights that apply to this powerful and challenging option.

This Guidance on Planned Relocation therefore sets out general principles to assist States and other actors faced with the need to undertake “Planned Relocation.” The aspiration is that these general principles will be helpful to States and supporting actors in formulating Planned Relocation laws, policies, plans, and programmes. This Guidance will be accompanied by a set of Operational Guidelines, to be developed in 2015-2016 which will include specific measures and examples of good practices to assist States in translating these general principles into concrete laws, policies, plans, and programmes. As part of this process, this Guidance will also be open for a second phase of comments from October 2015 and may be amended and rereleased during the second quarter of 2016.