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Tackling displacement

This event is about tackling displacement by natural disasters in the sustainable development agenda.


We have heard a presentation of facts and trends by Elisabeth Rasmusson, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which also hosts the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. NRC and IDMC are highly respected and influental organisations internationally when it comes to protection of displaced persons. They are also close partners to the Norwegian government.

I would like to speak of two issues here, both close to the heart of Norway’s humanitarian policy.

Firstly, the need to prevent disasters or at least the most detrimental effect of natural hazards, secondly, how we can address the protection gap of those displaced cross border by natural disasters.


Climate change as the big amplifier for natural disasters is well documented in the special report on extreme weather events by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The main message of the report is very clear: climate change is leading to more extreme weather conditions. And they are occurring more frequently and in new places. Natural disasters are becoming increasingly more disastrous. Livelihoods are eroding more quickly. Larger numbers of people are being forced to move.

It is not only the forces of nature that determine the scale of a disaster. Poor governance adds to the burden. The same goes for poverty, unsustainable development practices, ecosystem degradation and lack of early warning systems. Three weeks ago I visited Niger, a very poor country devastated by recurrent drought and famine. While drought generally came every tenth year in the past, Niger is now experiencing severe drought only two years after the hunger crisis in 2010. The severe, chronic crisis in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel has highlighted the need for approaches to humanitarian action designed to build resilience in addition to providing life-saving support to address short-term needs.

My government drew the conclusion some years ago and decided to make prevention a centrepiece of the humanitarian policy in a White Paper, presented to the Norwegian Parliament in 2008.

This policy has various elements, one of the most important being the need to improve the international community’s response. We must become better at identifying disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation-related activities and ask hard questions in cases where such initiatives are absent.

In addition to seeking to influence the international agenda, we have also started to work with a few selected countries – Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cuba and Uganda – on capacity building efforts in local and national institutions with a view to building resilient societies.

It’s not necessarily rocket science: Basic early warnings systems – in the form of bicycles and megaphones – have saved thousands of lives in the most recent cyclones in Bangladesh.

Yesterday I visited one of Rio’s favelas. There I was told that when slum dwellers were provided with proper housing, those first in line were the ones living on the steepest and most exposed hillsides. The inhabitants of Rio’s have learned the hard way the danger of mud slides. As late as last year around 800 people were killed in terrible slides. Again, simple efficient measures are effective tools at the local level, as well as better coordination at the national level.

Now let me turn to the issue of displacement. Which, if we improve our skills in disaster preparedness, will actually become less of a challenge.

The world's total humanitarian emergency capacities including the UN system is not sufficient to deal with the humanitarian needs following mega-disasters. I 2010 the two mega disasters; the earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan contributed exceptional high numbers of internally displaced, with 42.3 million fleeing their homes. In 2011, the numbers dropped significantly with 14.9 million new displacement following sudden onset disasters. A stronger effort by the world community is needed to implement § 14 (f) of the Cancun Adaptation Framework to strengthen the response and coordination capacity of disaster induced displacement.  

The numbers mentioned above refer to internally displaced by sudden onset disasters. However, climate change will also cause environmental degradation. Therefore, it is important to establish parameters estimating displacement from slow onset disasters.

We have seen this in the case of the Horn of Africa. Droughts, like in Somalia tend to trigger displacement when there are already factors of civil unrest and conflicts and when it is impossible to bring in the necessary food and medical aid. There is still not enough knowledge of the nexus between conflict and climate change/disasters as the inter-linkages are complex and many. We need to build a better knowledge base and regard IDMC important in this respect.

Internally displaced person should enjoy the protection of their own government. Refugees are protected by the Refugee Convention. People forced to flee cross border for environmentally related reasons however do not enjoy the same rights.

In our view there is a clear protection gap. This was the topic of a conference that the Norwegian government hosted last year, called the "Nansen international conference on climate change and displacement in the 21st century".

Later that year at the Ministerial Conference organized by UNHCR in December to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Norway and Switzerland made the following pledge:

“A more coherent and consistent approach at the international level is needed to meet the protection needs of people displaced externally owing to sudden-onset disasters, including where climate change plays a role. We therefore pledge to cooperate with interested states, UNHCR and other relevant actors with the aim of obtaining a better understanding of such cross border movements at relevant regional and sub-regional levels, identifying best practices and developing consensus on how best to assist and protect the affected people.”

The overall goal of Nansen Initiative is to build a sound knowledge base on cross-border displacement in the context of natural disasters and environmental degradation and to foster consensus-building on key principles and elements regarding the protection of persons displaced across borders in the context of natural disasters.

This initiative can only be successful if Norway and Switzerland are joined by a small and dedicated group of countries from the North and the South as well as key agencies, non-governmental organizations and researchers supporting this endeavor. Already, Mexico and Germany have shown an interest to join us. UNHCR and NRC/IDMC are also key partners. If we manage to get a group of committed actors together we could be successful in addressing a potentially very huge problem.

The former special representative on human rights of IDPs, Prof Walter Kälin, will be appointed as envoy to the Swiss-Norwegian chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative. It has not yet been formally launched. That will happen at the next Executive meeting of the UNHCR in Geneva in the fall. Meanwhile, it is my hope and conviction that you will hear more about it in the months to come.



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