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Addressing the plight of people displaced across borders in the context of natural disasters

Professor Walter Kälin discusses The Nansen Initiative at UNU-EHS


On 4 March 2013 UNU-EHS hosted a lecture by Professor Walter Kälin, Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative. Esteemed scholars and experts were present from a number of relevant institutions, including the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Bonn University, Osnabrück University, Center for Development Research (ZEF), Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

The lecture began with an introduction by Dr. Koko Warner, Head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation section at UNU-EHS, in which she described UNU-EHS research on environmentally induced migration, including the EACH-FOR project, the Human Mobility in the Horn of Africa project in collaboration with UNHCR and the Where the Rain Falls project in collaboration with CARE.

Cross-border displacement: Need for international cooperation and standards

Following Dr. Warner’s presentation, Professor Walter Kälin began by discussing his experiences in Mogadishu where there are currently an estimated 200 000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), most of whom arrived in 2011 in the context of drought. Professor Kälin emphasized that people displaced across international borders due to natural disasters are especially vulnerable as they do not benefit from the same legal protection accorded to political refugees. He identified numerous legal and institutional gaps and challenges facing those who cross borders as a result of natural disasters.  For example, there is a lack of standards regarding admissions (i.e. staying and returning), and unclear mandates for agencies to respond to cross-border displacement, since no NGO or agency has responsibility for overseeing people displaced by natural disasters. These problems evidence the urgent need to find more durable solutions for those who are displaced in the context of natural disasters.

The adoption of paragraph 14(f) of the Outcome Agreement on Long-term Cooperative Action at the Cancún Climate Change Conference signified an emerging consensus between countries, as it invited states to augment action on climate change adaptation by undertaking ”measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change-induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at the national, regional and international levels.” Herewith, the international community for the first time recognized explicitly the humanitarian consequences of climate change-related population movements as an adaptation challenge.

Building consensus among states: The Nansen Initiative


Professor Kälin then launched into an introduction of the Nansen Initiative. The Initiative was launched by Norway and Switzerland in October 2012 and aims to build consensus amongst interested states on how best to address cross-border displacement in the context of both sudden- and slow-onset disasters.

It is an intergovernmental initiative, outside of the UN system, that seeks to build consensus using a bottom-up approach. It goes beyond the Cancún Outcome Agreement insofar as it not only looks at climate-related disasters, but also at geophysical disasters. Professor Kälin emphasized that the Nansen Initiative is not about drafting a convention or soft law instrument but instead about building consensus among interested governments about what needs to be done in terms of developing potential standards, building international solidarity, and effective operational responses.

The Initiative will begin by conducting a series of consultative meetings in the Pacific, Central America, the Horn of Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, (sub-) regions that are particularly affected by actual or expected cross-border displacement due to disasters.

For example, the first consultation planned in the Pacific will address three key issues specific to the region:

  1. How to integrate population movements into adaptation plans and access adaptation funding
  2. Safeguarding cultural identify as well as land and property issues in the context of displacement, voluntary migration, and planned relocation
  3. The role of the Pacific Island Forum and other regional institutions in addressing these issues

After these consultations, a global meeting planned for 2015 is expected to set the agenda for future action at domestic, regional and international levels, perhaps even acting as a trigger for more formal processes.