Forced Movement – Social Sensitive Aspects of Disaster Displacement and Planned Relocation in the Context of Climate Change Impacts

By guest writer Frederic Grobler

First evidence that climate-induced migration is taking place emerges.[1] Impacts of climate change alter weather conditions that lead to storms, monsoon changes, sea-level rise, and droughts and in consequence threat the livelihoods of millions of people. [2] Those detrimental effects motivate people to move in myriad ways, ranging from seasonal migration due to deteriorated agricultural conditions to disaster-related movements. In order to preserve livelihoods and dignity of people and especially the most vulnerable anticipation and preparation are key for thoughtful and rights-preserving management. Governments are advised to follow this suggestion, which is increasingly represented in international agreements, such as in §7 & §14 of the Cancun Adaptation Framework, the establishment of the Task Force for Displacement during the 19th Conference of Parties in Warsaw, the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Human mobility encounters an explicit challenge if it is a forced top-down measure as planned relocation (PR) and disaster-induced displacement (DID) is. DID is the forced movement of people possibly induced by the exposure to disasters and limited resilience.[3][4] PR is the top-down resettlement of people guided by a governmental entity, therefore within national borders, and can be implemented on individual, household or community level.[5] This article points out the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of mobility in the context of water-related hazards.

A key question is “how well existing law, as well as national, regional, and international regimes, protect people displaced by climate-related disasters in particular and natural disasters in general.”[6], which seeks an answer in the socially constructed establishment of vulnerabilities, exposure and resilience.[7] Disasters are experienced differently between and within societies and politics are to be sensitive to this aspect. Vulnerability and exposure both are not equally distributed among society, but depend on many different factors, among them socioeconomic and political factors.[8][9] Specific power relations are for example a key driver for a heterogeneous distribution of exposure and vulnerability, which resulted from twisted development processes and instable social histories.[10][11] Social inequality is partially embedded in gender and sociological debates about broader structural discrimination of societal subgroups who are under- and misrepresented. A key objective of the sociological perspective is to address social discrimination. Those groups, among them women, elderly and minorities, face disproportionate risks from the adverse effects of climate change, which can magnify inequalities.[12] Magnification may occur when safeguards are not maintained that protect for gender-based violence, trafficking and sexual harassment.[13][14] Social- or gender-insensitivity may be also magnified by indirect drivers such as constrained participation in decision making and lack of disaggregated data by mobility status, “understanding how different types of movement (for example, internal or cross-border, document or undocumented) interact, with other characteristics (such as gender, age, ethnicity, race, income, and employment status) in producing vulnerability”.[15]

Following Miletto et al., the mobility process shall be divided into a pre, during and post phase.[16] The pre-mobility phase can be characterized by the initial situation, including the individuals and the external stressors. During-mobility is determined by the facilitation of evacuation, transport and shelter. The post-mobility phase encompasses challenges of integration and re-establishment of livelihoods as well as the prevention of magnifying existing vulnerabilities, e.g. through job access, compensation, equal rights, but also adaptation support to a potential new social environment.[17]

Disaster-induced displacement is in itself already a tragedy, facing the temporary uninhabitability of a region and its subsequent evacuation. The hurricane season 2017 in the Caribbean is a prime example, since in this year multiple category 5 hurricanes hit landfall, especially at the easterly islands.[18] Due to the exposure of the region, such events alternate regularly. However, disaster-induced displacements are mostly a highly irregular process, due to the very nature of disasters and the lack of adequate societal risk management. This is not just due to deficient management practices, due to lack of resources, capacity and standard procedures, but also due to the magnitude of unprecedented disasters, as the hurricane season in 2017 were for the Caribbean. Such a disaster would benefit from international attention and, thus, also short-term financial help.[19] This might actually facilitate a certain success of disaster-induced displacement and, thus, can be accounted as an advantage. However, the distribution of this financial help may be likely not social-sensitive, as help is needed urgently. Evidence of Antigua and Barbuda showed how the high irregularity of disasters foster fraud and power politics, instead of helping the people most in need.[20] Thus, such displacement processes are highly likely to neglect more immobile individuals of society, due to age, sickness or care work. In principal the most impoverished countries displace.[21]  Protection gaps for cross-border displacement caused excluding the particularities of statelessness (both slow- and sudden-onset disasters).[22] Evacuation routes and sites would have to be incorporated into evacuation strategies, considering the different needs of individuals.[23] In the aftermath of a disaster, displaced people are often sheltered which bears challenges for especially hygiene and safety or psychological issues. [24] Those protection gaps are unlikely to be bridged sufficiently due to the irregularity of such disasters and subsequently the following displacement.

Apart from the many gaps that exist with respect to social-sensitive disaster-induced displacement, also the identification of disasters bears the risk of deficient management. Disasters may be experienced by specific parts of society at different times and in different ways. Considering a male-dominated decision body, insufficient data about the society and deficient communication streams for other parts of the society, more subtle events may be perceived by vulnerable groups as a disaster, while men and the decision body are not aware of it. Hence, not even the displacement process itself, but also the insensitive identification of such may influence vulnerable parts of society.

On a general remark, disaster-induced displacement might bear less risk of social disintegration due to its temporary duration. This kind of mobility is also accompanied by more homogenous strategies, which may at least not intentionally reinforce vulnerabilities and solid UN Guiding Principles for internal displacements.[25] However, this support does not belie the great challenges for social-sensitivity in the case of disasters.

Planned relocation can be understood as an act of anticipating disasters or identifying regions as uninhabitable or too risky to live in. This anticipation bears inherently a chance to sustain livelihoods and wellbeing although it is generally a measure of last resort.[26] It could diminish the impact of co-pressures on households due to better conditions elsewhere and less risk for, e.g. fight for resources.[27] Although evidence of how planned relocations are undertaken is scarce, theoretically the chance for full-fledged sustainable development programmes and participatory, integrative approaches inhibits planned relocations.[28] This advantage is exemplarily embodied by the Xialoangdi dam. The development-induced relocation shows that living standards can be improved with planned relocations due to restoration of livelihoods, participatory processes, attention to host communities, strong governmental commitment and capacity and substantial financial commitments.[29][30] The danger of social disintegration shrinks, even if the relocation occurs permanent, if communities stay stable in host areas.[31][32] The dependency of social sensitive approaches on governments endangers especially in the context of land, job, home, marginalization, food security, morbidity and mortality and access to common property – all dimensions where vulnerable people would get more vulnerable if processes are not inclusive and sensitive.[33] This danger magnifies especially if decision processes are not participatory and inclusive.[34] Sensitive decision bodies are key for successfully planned relocations due to the susceptibility of misuse for power and economic gain, as examples of land grabbing in Barbuda showed.[35][36]  Furthermore, if large regions get relocated, as in the case of Bangladesh likely, the extent of land and time needed is unlikely to be provided.[37]

Concluding, PR and DID shape mobility processes in an anticipated or reacting way. Advantages and disadvantages were found in both types of top-down mobility measures.  DID tend to be specifically vulnerable due to its disruptiveness, before, during and after the disaster. However, due to the abrupt event less chance for planned situation motivated discrimination exists as well as standardized procedures and short-term financial aid may provide sufficient means to facilitate disaster-induce displacement. For PR the decision process, including participation and information flow, invites for misuse, especially in male-dominated regions. However, it also bears a chance for successful social-sensitive strategies. As PR happens often permanent the post-phase is the long-term discriminator for successful or unsuccessful PR. Often will, financial and personal assets might lack to facilitate a safe and orderly PR process.

Obviously, those processes heavily vary case by case and depend on the ability and will of the government to reduce risk beforehand and manage processes adequately, committed and anticipated. The initiation, preparation, processing and reflection upon top-down human mobility revealed hot spots of importance for future displacements and relocations. DID and PR should be seen as last resorts due to their drastic and endangering properties.[38] Governments are advised to reduce risks and decrease inequalities beforehand, during and after sudden- or slow-onset events in order to maintain the livelihood of the wellbeing of individuals, decrease the necessity of forced movement as well as create manageable proportions of mobility.


© All Rights Reserved, Frederic Grobler, 2020

Further researches from the author can be found on: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frederic_Grobler2

[1] Wodon et al., Climate Change and Migration.

[2] Warner et al., ‘Changing Climate, Moving People: Framing Migration, Displacement and Planned Relocation’, 9.

[3] The Nansen Initiative, ‘Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change’.

[4] Warner et al., ‘Changing Climate, Moving People: Framing Migration, Displacement and Planned Relocation’.

[5] The Brookings Institution, Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change through Planned Relocation’.

[6] Kolmannskog and Trebbi, ‘Climate Change, Natural Disasters and Displacement’, 714.

[7] Oliver-Smith et al., ‘Forensic Investigation of Disasters (FORIN). A Conceptual Framework and Guide to Research.’

[8] Zetter and Morrissey, ‘The Environmnet-Mobility Nexus: Reconceptualizing the Links between Environmental Stress, (Im)Mobility, and Power’.

[9] Oliver-Smith et al., ‘Forensic Investigation of Disasters (FORIN). A Conceptual Framework and Guide to Research.’

[10] Ginetti, ‘Disaster Related Displacement Risk: Measuring the Risk and Addressing Its Drivers.’

[11] Hewitt, ‘Disaster Risk Reduction in the Era of “Homeland Security”: The Struggle for Precautionary, Preventive, and Non-Violent Approaches.’

[12] ‘Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development’.

[13] UNCEDAW.

[14] IOM, ‘The Climate Change-Human Trafficiking Nexus’.

[15] Miletto et al., Migration and Its Interdepencies with Water Scarcity, Gender and Youth Employment, 37.

[16] Ferris, ‘Planned Relocations, Disasters and Climate Change’.

[17] Miletto et al., Migration and Its Interdepencies with Water Scarcity, Gender and Youth Employment.

[18] Shultz et al., ‘The 2017 Perfect Storm Season, Climate Change, and Environmental Injustice’.

[19] Warner, ‘Human Migration and Displacement in the Context of Adaptation to Climate Change’.

[20] Baptiste and Devonish, ‘The Manifestation of Climate Injustices’.

[21] Warner, ‘Human Migration and Displacement in the Context of Adaptation to Climate Change’, 24.

[22] Kolmannskog and Trebbi, ‘Climate Change, Natural Disasters and Displacement’, 720.

[23] Guadagno, ‘Human Mobility in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’.

[24] Sugden et al., ‘A Framework to Understand Gender and Structural Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Ganges River Basin: Lessons from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.’

[25] Refugees, ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’.

[26] The Nansen Initiative, ‘Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change’.

[27] Warner et al., ‘Changing Climate, Moving People: Framing Migration, Displacement and Planned Relocation’, 9.

[28] Warner et al., 34.

[29] Warner, ‘Human Migration and Displacement in the Context of Adaptation to Climate Change’, 34.

[30] Ferris, ‘Planned Relocations, Disasters and Climate Change’.

[31] Ferris, 2–3.

[32] Marino, ‘The Long History of Environmental Migration’, 1.

[33] Cernea, ‘Risks, Safeguards and Reconstruction: A Model for Population Displacement and Resettlement’.

[34] ‘Twenty Years of the Guiding Principles on Internal Dispacement’.

[35] Ferris, ‘Planned Relocations, Disasters and Climate Change’.

[36] Miami, ‘Robert De Niro’s Plan for Caribbean Mega-Resort Opposed by Island Residents’.

[37] Warner, ‘Human Migration and Displacement in the Context of Adaptation to Climate Change’, 33.

[38] Kartiki, ‘Climate Change and Migration’.

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