On average, one person is displaced every second as a result of a disaster. In fact, disasters now account for the largest number of newly displaced people each year – more than from persecution, violence or conflict. It is a trend that is likely to continue as the impacts of climate change render extreme weather events more frequent and/or intense and slower-onset impacts gradually compromise human settlements in certain areas.  Although the majority of people displaced by the impacts of disasters and climate change will move within their own countries, some will be forced across international borders. Existing international legal frameworks are ill-equipped to deal with this phenomenon and there are a number of ‘protection gaps’.  Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, this research project examines the role of international law in addressing mobility in the context of climate change and disasters, and suggests strategies for future law and policy-making.

Climate change and disaster-related displacement and migration (Jane McAdam)

Each year, millions of people are displaced as a result of disasters.  Climate change is anticipated to increase the frequency and severity of disasters and extreme weather events, which means there is likely to be even more disaster-related displacement in the future. The slower-onset impacts of climate change, such as desertification, drought and sea-level rise, will also impact on human movement. Most disaster-related movement will occur within countries, rather than across international borders. However, there is likely to be some cross-border movement, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, a State will not be able to deal with the scale of the disasters it faces, and people may seek assistance elsewhere.  In other cases, areas may no longer be habitable, and internal migration may not be a viable option.

While moving away from harm is a normal human adaptation strategy, the difficulty today is that people cannot simply migrate as and when they choose. National immigration laws restrict the entry of non-citizens into other countries. International law only recognizes a very small class of forced migrants as people whom other countries have an obligation to protect: ‘refugees’, ‘stateless persons’, and those eligible for complementary protection. This means that unless people fall within one of those groups, or can lawfully migrate for reasons such as employment, family and education, they run the risk of interdiction, detention and expulsion if they attempt to cross an international border and have no legal entitlement to stay in that other country.

This project examines how international law should approach displacement, migration and planned relocation in the context of natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.

Relocation and resettlement from danger zones (Jane McAdam)

Planned relocation has recently gained prominence as a tool for reducing vulnerable communities’ exposure to the impacts of climate change and disasters.  It can be a pre-emptive measure to move people out of dangerous areas before disaster strikes or land becomes uninhabitable.  It can also be used in the aftermath of a disaster if return home is not possible.  In most cases, planned relocations will occur within countries, rather than across international borders.

However, there are three historical cases of communities being relocated across international borders, with at least another three mooted but never carried out, all of which occurred in the Pacific in the mid-20th century.  These relocations demonstrate the enduring importance of matters such as the right to self-determination, self-governance, the preservation (and politicization) of identity and culture, and the right to control resources.  They also highlight issues of consent, authority and participation, and reveal important lessons for any future relocations that might be contemplated.

In addition to uncovering and examining the implications of these early examples, this research project also considers whether, in the context of disasters and climate change, States have a duty to relocate people out of harm’s way, and if so, what role international human rights law plays in such movement.

International law and sea-level rise: The impacts on mobility (Jane McAdam)

This research project forms part of the work of the International Law Association (ILA) Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise.  The aim of the project is to study the possible impacts of sea-level rise and the implications under international law of the partial and complete inundation of State territory, or depopulation thereof, in particular of small island and low-lying States.  The project has produced a number of reports and papers on displacement, migration and planned relocations, as well as the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea Level Rise, with commentaries, to be adopted in late 2018 by the ILA.  The members of the project are Professors Jane McAdam, Professor Walter Kälin, Bruce Burson and Sanjula Weerasinghe.

The role of local government authorities in building protection solutions against disaster displacement risk in the Pacific (Luke Potter)

While in global terms, Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) represent only a small proportion of people at risk of disaster displacement, their small size and unique geographical position means they are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise. It is therefore not surprising that SIDS would benefit most greatly from investments in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation strategies.

This PhD research project is being developed in the context of rapidly evolving international recognition of the need to protect people displaced by the impacts of disasters and climate change, and the importance of local governments in implementing disaster risk reduction strategies. However, to date there has been little examination of the practical contribution that local governments can make to manage disaster displacement risk.

A focus on local governments in the Pacific provides an opportunity to move towards the implementation of sustainable and successful disaster displacement risk reduction strategies. This research examines the extent to which local governments can offer protection against disaster-displacement risk in Pacific SIDS. It examines the interplay of international and national disaster risk reduction laws, and the effectiveness of collaborations between local governments and stakeholder agencies, to identify areas for future good practices. It is also anticipated that a focus on local governments will provide insight into the social phenomena that put some people more at risk of hazards (and disaster displacement) than others. This research will also make a valuable contribution to international law- and policymaking processes, such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement.

Free movement agreements and protection for the disaster displaced (Tamara Wood)

In light of the protection gap for disaster displaced persons under international law, States and others must look to existing cross-border mobility mechanisms to see whether they could facilitate access to territory and safety for those forced to leave their homes and countries in search of security. This research investigates the potential role of one such mechanism – namely, regional agreements for the free movement of persons between States. Regional free movement agreements – including visa-free travel and the relaxation of entry requirements – have the potential to facilitate movement in the context of disasters and climate change, allowing affected communities to move in safety and with dignity. However, free movement agreements were not developed with the protection needs of displaced persons in mind, and at present are generally not attuned to the human rights of those who move.

This research project investigates how free movement agreements do, or could, provide protection for cross-border disaster displaced persons. It considers important questions such as whether disaster displaced persons are eligible for free movement into neighbouring countries, the rights afforded to displaced persons in countries of destination, and the prospects for lasting solutions for those who cannot return home, and makes recommendations as to how free movement agreements could be adapted or better implemented to address the protection needs of disaster displaced persons in the future. The research focuses on Africa, where free movement agreements have been adopted or proposed at both the regional and sub-regional levels. However, the findings and recommendations could provide a model for consideration in other regions as well, where rights-based free movement agreements could facilitate access to territory and lifesaving assistance for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Issue Cover  Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012) 
Jane McAdam, ‘Building International Approaches to Climate Change, Disasters and Displacement’ (2016) 33 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 1–14

Jane McAdam, ‘How Do We Deal with the Prospect of Increased Climate Migration?’, The Conversation (1 December 2016)


Jane McAdam, Bruce Burson, Walter Kälin and Sanjula Weerasinghe, International Law and Sea-Level Rise: Forced Migration and Human Rights (Fridtjof Nansen Institute and Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, 2016, FNI Report 1/2016)

 Jane McAdam, 'Climate Change Displacement Is Happening Now', Displaced podcast (19 March 2019)



The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.