The Coming Deluge? Natural hazards, climate change and mixed migration

How do environmental hazards and climate change affect mixed migration in the Horn of Africa and how will they do so in the coming years?

What will those forced to move be called and what international protection regimes support and protect them?

The Horn of Africa has a long history of large scale population movements driven by a variety of factors ranging from conflict, economic hardship, civil unrest, political repression, and human rights abuses. As the flows have become more mixed and numerous, increased attention is being devoted to how natural hazards, environmental disasters and climate change will act as drivers of migration and displacement. In fact, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (March 2014) highlighted this trend when it identified sub-Saharan Africa as one of the regions in the world that may be particularly affected by environmentally induced migration.

But while the vulnerability of sub-Saharan Africa – and the Horn of Africa in particular – to natural hazards and climate change is relatively uncontroversial, understanding and preparing for voluntary movement and displacement in this context promises to be an exercise full of theoretical, empirical, and political difficulties. Challenges arise not only when attempting to predict the scale, form and duration of future migration and displacement patterns, but also in identifying and adopting best practices to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

Two kinds of movement [1]

The natural hazards and disasters (some of which are linked to climate change [2]) that frequently occur in the Horn are known to have sudden as well as slow onset rates leading to different kinds of movement.[3]Sudden onset-disasters in the region have caused displacement where people are forced to move rapidly, internally, and generally for shorter periods. In the last decade a number of occurrences have matched this pattern: in 2005, following a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the Ethiopian authorities issued advisories for the evacuation of 50,000 people; in the following year floods left approximately 120,000 internally displaced in Sudan and 255,000 internally displaced in Somalia; and more recently 10,000 people were internally displaced when a tropical storm hit Puntland and South-Central Somalia.

By comparison, slow-onset hazards[4] – which are considered the most immediate environmental challenge for inhabitants of the Horn – chip away at habitats and livelihoods. Faced with increasingly harsh and unprofitable environments – sometimes compounded by civil conflict – people have chosen to migrate as a coping mechanism,[5] contributing to the mega trend of migration away from pastoral and agricultural areas towards urban centres. Unlike displacement (where families or communities are likely to move together) the emerging pattern is of a handful of individuals migrating for longer periods in order to access income elsewhere and send remittances back home. This in turn has contributed to resilience and adaptation in the face of environmental stresses. But while slow onset natural hazards are primarily associated with voluntary movements they can also result in displacement. The 2011/12 drought in the Horn of Africa, which led to 1.3 million internally displaced persons within Somalia and resulted in 290,000 Somalis crossing international borders, is one example of a slow-onset disaster first contributing to voluntary migration (where the able bodied move in search of improved livelihoods elsewhere) but which overtime led  to a deterioration of living conditions making it impossible for people to remain in the affected areas.

Challenges in understanding and responding to the phenomenon

A number of difficulties arise when trying to understand and respond to the phenomenon of natural hazard linked movement. One is the issue of determining whether the natural hazard/disaster is in fact the cause (at least primarily) of the displacement/migration – an important question because the causation/motivation of the movement tends to determine the mover’s status. Complicating matters in the Horn is the fact that a number of factors are known to contribute to movement, often involving a mix of armed conflict, government failures, structural violence, and persecution. And although instances of pure natural hazard movement in the region have been rare this may not always be the case in light of expected environmental changes. This in turn raises an interesting question: is the region prepared to respond to displacement caused predominately by natural hazards? Reaching back to a past example, how would Kenya and Ethiopia have responded to the thousands of Somali families fleeing drought in a context where they did not already have prima facie refugee status in 2011/12? After all, it was the two decade long conflict and civil discord which allowed them to gain entry into neighbouring countries.

In looking forward, predicting future movement is made difficult by the limited data available on past trends in the region. Undeniably, modelling future patterns is a challenging task in itself, but the diverse drivers of movement, scientific uncertainties, lack of systematic data collection and sharing, the absence of universally defined criteria, as well as inconsistent use of terminology, make the exercise doubly difficult.

This feeds into the political and legal challenges of identifying and adopting timely responses. For example, migration in the region is traditionally seen as evidence of significant failures within a given society. But this bias may prevent policy makers from viewing natural hazard induced migration as a legitimate livelihood diversification and adaptation strategy. Indeed, migration that is resilience-friendly (i.e. where it does not add to vulnerabilities) can empower sending communities by helping to reduce risks to lives and livelihoods, as well as in contributing to income diversification. But for this to occur states must have the foresight and political will to anticipate, plan and cooperate to ensure that migration is harnessed as a viable response to future natural hazards and disasters in the region.

In the case of responses to internal displacement linked to natural hazards there is national law, international human rights, and regional frameworks, such as the Kampala Convention (which a number of Horn of Africa states are signatories to) that can guide responses. But for cross-border induced displacement there are significant legal and policy gaps. Those displaced internationally because of natural hazards do not have the right to enter and enjoy protection from other states. Indeed, under international law they can be forcibly returned to their country of origin. While the OAU Refugee Convention may serve as a possible framework to address international displacement linked to natural disasters, there is hardly any evidence that it was intended – or has been interpreted – to apply to natural disasters or climate change. In fact, attempts to extend existing refugee frameworks in a bid to recognize a new class of environmental refugee have failed in other parts of the world. It is in response to this kind of gap that processes like the Nansen Initiative have been launched to build consensus on the development of a protection agenda to address the needs of people displaced internationally by natural disasters, including the effects of climate change. Marking the extent of the interest in the issue, a high-level meeting (bringing together Horn of Africa states, Yemen, the AU, IGAD, the EAC, as well as international and non-governmental organizations) will be held in Kenya in late-May 2014 with the overarching objective of exchanging experiences, sharing good practices and building consensus on key normative, institutional and operational elements of a potential protection framework that may ultimately bridge the gap.

Moving ahead

Encouragingly, natural hazard induced migration and displacement in the Horn of Africa is an issue that is fast gaining attention from states, international organizations, civil society, academics, and individuals alike. While it is certain that the exercise of understanding the phenomenon and mapping out responses will be fraught with challenges – starting and committing to the process now is key.

[1] Policy and theory tends to draw a somewhat artificial distinction between voluntary and forced movements (i.e. displacement). Hinging on this difference are rights and policy choices underpinned by the assumption that those who are forced to move are more vulnerable and require greater assistance and protection.

[2]For example, severe droughts, floods, landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, as well as effects linked to climate change such as sea level rise, rainfall variability, and desertification.

[3] Past patterns suggest that the nature of the hazard usually determines the kind of movement.

[4] Such as the progressive degradation of the environment or drought.

[5] For example, environmental factors were found to be a more prominent migration driver in regions that regularly suffer from drought in Ethiopia when compared to those less prone to natural disasters. These and other findings will be published in an upcoming RMMS study: ‘Blinded by Hope: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Ethiopians migrants’.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.