The Policy Innovations blog has a new article on migration in the context of humanitarian disasters. It has some interesting insights on building legal protection for people who are displaced across a border by natural disasters.

From the blog post: Humanitarian permission may be given to enter rich countries for other reasons. If violence has ruined your life in the country you live in, you may qualify to enter as a “refugee” or “asylee,” as 16 percent of US immigrants did last year (PDF). Equally, if your life was ruined back home by a natural disaster and you enter a rich country without authorization, many countries won’t immediately send you back. But the world has so far decided that the right amount of new, authorized migration because of natural disasters—no matter how horrific—is zero.

Is zero the right number? Think of Haiti. At least 150,000 people died there two years ago when houses and buildings could not withstand a cataclysmic earthquake. Many wars don’t have a toll as large, or effects as lasting. The U.S. response was to admit a tiny number of Haitians for emergency medical treatment, and to delay most deportations, but not one Haitian could be admitted to the United States because of the disaster. This would have been completely different if war had struck Haiti.

So, what if a limited number of humanitarian entry slots were offered to people affected by natural disaster? How many should it be? And how would it work? There are precedents. For a generation (1952–80), the United States unilaterally defined “refugee” to include people fleeing “natural catastrophes,” but the provision was almost never utilized. Some other countries have similar de jure provisions today; Sweden, for example, allows for protection of migrants (PDF) “unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster.” But there is no equivalent of the international refugee system to realize these on-paper mechanisms.

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