What Makes a Refugee? As Impact of Natural Disasters Grows, Definition Leaves Gaps

An aerial view of La Piste, a displacement camp of 50,000 Haitians formed after the 2010 earthquake. (Timo Luege/IASC Haiti Shelter Cluster)

The president of the Dominican Republic faced a tough question after the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti and left hundreds of thousands of Haitians homeless—should he open his borders to them? There was no international law to guide the president’s decision, said Walter Kälin, former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, because the displaced “were not protected as refugees” by international law. There is a gap in international norms.

Mr. Kälin said every year between 12-45 million people are displaced by sudden onset disasters; this number doesn’t include those displaced by slow-onset disasters. “Displacement is one of the biggest challenges we are facing right now,” he said.

Mr. Kälin described another case where 100,000 people fleeing drought in the Horn of Africa showed up at the border to Kenya, saying they had lost their crops and animals and would die if they weren’t allowed in the country. 

“And again, the question: are they refugees? How should they be treated? Do they have a right to access neighboring countries?” he asked.

Mr. Kälin said displacement is not just a humanitarian issue, and mitigation should include investing in development. “Development interventions can help to stabilize, to prevent displacement,” he said. “And I think that’s a big enough issue to be worthwhile to be included in this sustainable development agenda, into the focus areas, the goals and targets. And I very much hope that this will happen.”

He said another crucial way to mitigate displacement is to listen to climate change scientists. These scientists model climate and can show areas vulnerable to rising seas, drought, and desertification—places where displacement is likely. “People will move, and it will be increasingly large numbers. We can wait and do nothing. But we also can be prepared, because it’s foreseeable,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow for Humanitarian Affairs at the International Peace Institute. You can follow him on Twitter: @jeremie_labbe.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Jérémie Labbé: I am here with Professor Walter Kälin, Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative and former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, a position that you held from 2004–2010. Walter, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory today.

First, could you tell us what the Nansen Initiative is?

Walter Kälin: The Nansen Initiative is an intergovernmental process outside of the United Nations that aims at building consensus from the bottom-up on one of the key challenges this world is facing, namely people displaced by natural disasters, including and in particular from the effects of climate change.

JL: Could you be a bit more specific? What kind of effects does climate change or disasters have on people, and why do they move?

WK: Let me give you some examples. Back in 2010, Haiti was hit by one of the most devastating earthquakes, and hundreds of thousands who were displaced within the country immediately found refuge in makeshift camps. But many showed up already during the very first night—the first few days after the earthquake—at the border of the neighboring Dominican Republic. The question for the president was: should he open the borders or should he keep them closed? And he couldn’t get any guidance from any kind of international law because these people, even though they didn’t have any opportunity at that time for their wounded family members to access medical assistance (this came only later), they were not protected as refugees or in any other kind of quality by international law. A gap.

Let me give you another example. In the Pacific, some of the low-lying islands are already now affected by effects of climate change. There are high tides, there is coastal erosion, and very small, vulnerable atolls are losing land. The environmental conditions are deteriorating. There is, strangely enough—but it’s real—drought. There are wind storms. And where can these people go? There is not much space to escape these situations. And again, the question is: are they allowed to emigrate? Yes, everyone can emigrate. But are they allowed into countries where they would find a place to rebuild their lives, to have a positive future for themselves, for the families?

A third example: In 2010-2011, Somalia and other countries in the Horn of Africa region were hit by drought, by very serious drought. Actually, it was the peak of a ten-year period of increasing droughts. And more than 100,000 people, for instance, showed up at the border to Kenya. They did not claim that they had to flee the armed conflict, but rather said we have lost our crops, we have lost our last animals. If you don’t let us in then we will die. And again, the question: are they refugees? How should they be treated? Do they have a right to access neighboring countries?

Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti at that time were very generous and granted refugee status for these people, even though there was not an element of persecution, which is kind of at the core of the notion of a refugee. So maybe it was a rather pragmatic response to an actual challenge.

What we have in international law is a big gap for people who are displaced across borders as a consequence of natural hazards, be it sudden onset disasters such as flooding, wind storms, earthquakes or slow onset disasters such as rising sea levels and drought. And those numbers without doubt will increase in the context of the effects of climate change.

JL: So, are you considering a new refugee convention, especially for disaster or so-called environmental refugees? Is it what the Nansen Initiative is about?

WK: No, this is not the goal of the Nansen Initiative. First, it is problematic to call these people refugees. What is a refugee? A refugee is someone fleeing persecution and violence, someone who needs international protection because he or she cannot get that kind of protection from the authorities back home—those authorities that either turn against people who are persecuted or are unwilling or unable to provide protection in case of persecution/violence by nonstate actors. What we have in refugee law as the key concept is substitute international protection: protection that substitutes for the lack of protection by national authorities. 

This would be the wrong approach for the people we’re talking about in our context. What we are talking about here is not governments turning against their people. It’s talking about governments that are overwhelmed by the impacts of the natural hazards. That’s why we call it a disaster. 

But the approach should be cooperation. It should be cooperation with the country of origin and the country of refuge; cooperation with the international community providing support for hosting people that are displaced across borders; but also providing support for finding durable solutions. So, the refugee paradigm is not the ideal one. We need to come up with new solutions, with innovative solutions. 

JL: So this initiative focuses really on people displaced across borders by disasters, mostly natural disasters. But it seems to me that in a number of cases, maybe in most cases, the cause of displacement can hardly be reduced to the occurrence of a disaster. You mentioned the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011. There, it is quite illustrative that where it resulted in the most massive displacement, as you mentioned, was in Somalia, a country that has been affected by more than two decades of conflict. 

So, can we really refer to these people as disaster-displaced? And what are the implications this has in terms of response, this multilayer or multi-causality of reasons behind displacement?

WK: The methodology of the Nansen Initiative—to build the necessary consensus on establishing, developing innovative solutions—is in a first phase to conduct a series of regional consultations. What we have seen is that there are regions, such as in the Pacific, where violence does not play any significant role, but where the natural hazards are not the sole cause. What we have learned is that these population movements are always multicausal. It can be the impact of natural hazards, but it’s also lack of resilience, pre-existing vulnerabilities, the lack of development. And in some regions it is actually conflict and violence, and that’s particularly true for the Horn of Africa. 

In the Horn of Africa, we have a clear nexus between the impact of natural hazards and ongoing conflict. It can be the armed conflict in Somalia, but it can also be intercommunity conflict in countries such as Kenya or Uganda that erupt between communities as a consequence of shrinking natural resources. When pastoralists lose access to lands, to grazing grounds because of drought, they move. And then they clash with other communities that need that access to water and grazing land for their animals and their herds. And again, this can trigger conflict. So we have to look at these situations as having been caused by a multitude of factors, and good solutions need to address not only the natural hazards, but what we need is holistic, comprehensive approaches that take into account the conflict dimension. 

In the Horn of Africa, for instance, this can mean that, in terms of applicable legal frameworks, the wider notion of refugee as enshrined in the African Refugee Convention that also defines a refugee as someone who has to flee because of a breakdown of public order, that to use these wider refugee notions is an appropriate answer. But it cannot be generalized. In situations where we lack that nexus with conflict, the traditional concepts of refugees cannot really provide the necessary protection. That’s where we need to develop, I think, a whole toolbox with different elements, different instruments that can help people to respond to these huge challenges.

JL: You hinted to the fact that displacement, mobility, is often a coping strategy for communities, particularly in a region like the Horn of Africa, to face such a disaster like a drought. To what extent can security concerns of states in a region like the Horn of Africa, with the conflicts going on in that region, hinder this displacement? And how do you propose to answer to those legitimate security concerns?

WK: I would be a bit hesitant to call displacement a coping strategy. When your life is threatened and the only way out is to flee then you’re not really trying to adapt to that situation. Then, it’s about saving your life. However, we should not wait till people reach that level of difficulties. And what would be important is in a situation where environmental conditions are deteriorating, for instance, because of drought, sometimes also because of flooding, people should be allowed to move freely, voluntarily, to adapt to those challenges. And then it’s a real coping strategy: voluntary migration as adaptation. 

This has been a reality in the Horn of Africa for centuries. Particularly pastoralists/agro-pastoralists used to move to areas where there was more water, more fertile grounds—not permanently, but temporarily, in times of drought. And they were hosted by communities. This is still ongoing, but the security concerns come in exactly in these situations. 

First, we have a proliferation of small arms. We have the terrorism threat. And we also have increased conflict between communities over diminishing resources. These are security concerns, and states trying to address these concerns have legitimate reasons to do so. So we do have to find, somehow, solutions that can reduce the tension between the security agenda, on the one hand, and an agenda that would favor movement of people so they can escape from difficult situations, at least temporarily. 

I think it should be possible. It should be possible, for instance, through better organizing of such population movements. For instance, there have been good examples in northern Kenya to mediate between the host communities and pastoralists arriving from the other side of the borders. I think such mediation measures also are there to set some ground rules, for instance, when it comes to carrying arms, when it comes to using violence. And these are interesting avenues that need to be further explored.

JL: And how does this Nansen Initiative plug into current discussions on the post-2015 development framework and the so-called Sustainable Development Goals?

WK: Displacement is one of the biggest challenges we are facing right now. We are talking about huge numbers. We know about the 16 million-plus refugees. We know about the 30 million-plus internally displaced persons, displaced by armed conflict and violence. What is much less known is that—and this is changing from year to year—every year between 12 and 45 million people are displaced by sudden onset disasters. We don’t know the number of those displaced by slow onset disasters. 

So if you add up all of that, it’s substantial numbers. And these displacement occurrences, these displacement challenges, are not just a humanitarian issue. They are also a development issue because displacement negatively effects development. Development interventions can help to stabilize, to prevent displacement. So there’s a nexus. That’s the first thing. 

The second thing is what we learn from scientists looking at the prospects of climate change. They tell us that, regardless of whether we manage to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, there will be more population movements, particularly because of rising sea levels inundating and making uninhabitable low-lying mega deltas, drought, desertification. People will move and it will be increasingly large numbers. We can wait and do nothing. But we also can be prepared, because it’s foreseeable. 

And we can try to develop a whole toolbox of instruments that would help to manage these challenges. And I think that’s a big enough issue to be worthwhile to be included in this sustainable development agenda, into the focus areas, the goals and targets. And I very much hope that this will happen.

JL: Walter, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory

WK: Thank you.