Natural disasters are worsening under climate change. We need to better protect those fleeing their damage.

In 2014, an incredible 19 million people were forced to leave their homes in over 100 countries for reasons linked to natural disasters. This amounts to one person per second. Despite this though, these migrants are not afforded the same protections as refugees.

These numbers will most likely worsen as climate change progresses. In addition to the impacts on land and environment, one of its major consequences is going to be, and indeed already is, significant displacement of people as their home states become unable to support their populations as there is growth in the severity and frequency of natural disasters.

People displaced by disasters are not generally seen as refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – according to Article 1(A)(2) of the Convention, an individual must have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

As Professor Jane McAdam has noted, this combines with ‘inconsistent or ad hoc’ policy responses by states, leading to ‘protection gaps’ for disaster-displaced people. As such, protections for disaster-displaced people need to be strengthened and clarified.

An added challenge in protecting people displaced by natural disasters is that they will not necessarily be seeking refuge because of the disaster itself. Rather the drought, hurricane, bushfire, or whatever the disaster may be, is one factor that may exacerbate or influence other problems already in existence.

Issues with both the supply and quality housing in overpopulated developing nations, for example, will be worsened by increased extreme weather events and the damage those cause existing infrastructure. Food shortages will increase, as rising sea levels change the make-up of soil and the water table, making growing the necessary volume and variety of food even more difficult in some areas. Longer and more extreme droughts will wipe out crops, while increased flooding and bushfires will damage farmland.

The reasons for seeking refuge will often not be because of new phenomenon, but because climate change has worsened these historical problems. Where people fleeing their homes stand in terms of their rights to protection is, therefore, unclear.

Some individual nations and international groups are already responding to the need for better protections and assistance for the growing numbers of disaster-displaced people. Some countries are enacting domestic policies that acknowledge the impact of increased natural disasters on migration, and the need to protect those displaced by their effects.

In the USA, for example, temporary protection visas allow for those seeking refuge after environmental disasters, provided that they come from a country that the Homeland Security Secretary has designated as a Temporary Protected Status state. This can occur is if there has been an earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic, or other environmental disaster that makes the state temporarily unable to accept the return of its nationals, and the state has requested TPS designation.

In Australia, seasonal working visa schemes in Australia allow for priority to be given to applicants fleeing disaster-hit islands. The scheme intends to encourage economic development in Pacific Island States. Workers remitting money to their home states can help mitigate the effect of the natural disaster on their island's economy. Giving preference to such workers thus helps meet the goals of the scheme, making it permissible to focus on migrants fleeing environmental disasters.

Internationally, soft law is also quickly developing in this area. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 acknowledged, for the first time, that disaster displacement is a factor that states must consider in their migration policies.

The Paris Agreement (2016), too, recognised that displaced people are going to be a major consequence of climate change. While there are complaints that the Agreement does not do enough in responding to this issue, as it does not mandate the status or legal protections and assistance afforded to disaster-displaced people, there is still possible future benefit in having acknowledgment of the issue.

While these actions do not amount to substantial tangible protections for disaster-displaced people yet, they provide hope that such safeguards may exist in the near future.


The author, Hannah Wootton, was the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for semester two, 2017. Read other articles from The Student Voice.


Picture: Henry Donati/Department for International Development