Imagine the scenario: A natural disaster strikes and displaces thousands of people. Most flee immediately and move a short distance to the nearest safe place. Some people need to, or can, flee the disaster by crossing an international border. Some people may be near an international border and crossing presents the nearest safe escape route. Other people might already be living and working abroad when this disaster strikes and are now unable to return.

The disaster has trapped these people in a legal limbo. Had they fled persecution the Refugee Convention would protect their rights . The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement would protect them if they’d fled internally. But because they have fled across a aboard there is little stopping their host country returning them.

With climate change altering some kinds of disasters this presents a serious problem. The governments of Switzerland and Norway established The Nansen Initiative to address this issue. Over the coming years a process of consultation and negotiation will lead to a new protection agenda. This will define how states should respond when disasters displace people across borders.

The protection agenda will eventually define how such people should be treated, under what circumstances they can be admitted to a country, how long they can stay and under what circumstances they can or cannot be returned to their country of origin.

The process will also set out how states and international agencies could cooperate with each other during and after episodes of cross-border disaster displacement. Finally the process will set out operational responses: who responds and how during episodes of cross-border disaster displacement.

How should this proceed? At the moment a number of commentators have mooted several options. However, here we would like to suggest several key points:

  • Reaching a series of regional agreements might be a easier that reaching one international agreement. Cross border displacement by disasters is most likely to occur between neighbouring or nearby states. It is therefore crucial that neighbouring states in high-risk areas reach agreements on protecting each other’s citizens. Further, reaching a regional agreement between a smaller number of states could be easier than trying to negotiate an agreement between all states.
  • Temporary protection: several states already offer ‘temporary protection’ to people affected by disasters. This means that people are granted the right to stay in a country while their own country recovers. This is often offered by nearby countries who evacuate some people. Or it can be offered to people who are already working overseas but whose visas are due to expire. The temporary protection then allows them to extend their stay while their home country recovers from the disaster. Clearly temporary protection cannot help everyone, and it raises questions regarding people whose homes are permanently affected or destroyed. However, because a number of governments already have working systems of temporary protection this could present a logical way to proceed.

The Nansen Initiative is a state-led process. As this issue regards citizens of one country staying within another it can only be addressed by governments making agreements with each other, either bi-laterally or multi-laterally. We are part of the consultative committee to the Nansen Initiative. The consultative committee brings together experts from civil society, academia and international agencies to provide advice on the key elements of the protection agenda.

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