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 in the context 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 disasters and the impacts of climate change. 

Evacuations from crisis (Jane McAdam)

Evacuations are a longstanding emergency measure to save lives in crises, including disasters, conflicts, pandemics and medical emergencies. Yet, evacuations remain understudied and conceptually imprecise. We have a very incomplete understanding about how and why evacuations are used, what makes them successful or not, and when and how they come to an end. This is curious, given that close to 20 million people worldwide were evacuated in 2019 from disasters alone. This project engages in a 360-degree analysis of evacuations to determine how millions of people can receive better, long-lasting protection from danger. 

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. 

Planned relocation in the context of hazards, disasters and climate change (Sanjula Weerasinghe and Erica Bower)

As hazards, disasters and climate change profoundly affect people’s lives and living conditions, communities and authorities seek opportunities to move people permanently out of harm’s way. The planned relocation of people to areas with lower exposure and disaster risks are occurring around the world. This form of human mobility is recognized in policy and practice as a tool for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. However, it can also undermine human security. As such, planned relocation is generally considered as a measure of last resort. Experts have developed guidance, tools and evidence to inform planned relocation processes; this research project builds on these previous efforts. It provides an evidence base of planned relocation cases from around the world and identifies their key characteristics, including the associated hazards, spatial patterns, number of households, distance between sites, legal frameworks, initiating and supporting actors and challenges. The research seeks to provide policymakers, practitioners and communities with refined information to better assess how planned relocation could be undertaken to minimize negative impacts, avoid pitfalls and promote human rights and human dignity. This work also serves as a foundation for future comparative research on what is, and what contributes to, ‘successful’ outcomes.  

Protection in the context of conflict, disaster and other crises (Sanjula Weerasinghe)

In some places, conflict and disaster overlap and affect the same people. More recently, COVID-19 has aggravated the conditions of vulnerability of displaced populations. This research recognizes that intersecting, overlapping or recurrent crises undermine governance and resilience and exacerbate protection needs. It examines how certain States in Africa and Latin America have recognized refugee status on the basis of broader criteria explicit in regional refugee definitions in situations where disaster combined with conflict and violence. Through case studies, it also examines how legal and institutional frameworks on internal displacement and disaster risk reduction address displacement associated with each trigger. Finally, it examines how the dual challenges of COVID-19 and disasters have affected internally displaced people in the Asia Pacific region. 

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. 

For further information, see The Role of Free Movement in Preventing and Responding to Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change: A Study of Africa and associated Stakeholder Workshop Report, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Developing a research and policy agenda for addressing displacement and migration in the context of disasters and climate change in Africa (Tamara Wood)

This project seeks to advance research, evidence and regional engagement on displacement and migration in the context of disasters and climate change in Africa. It does so by engaging with scholars and institutions within the region and beyond to identify opportunities and knowledge gaps within regional laws and policies relating to disaster and climate change-related migration and displacement, and to pursue research that supports future law and policy development and implementation. 

This project explores questions such as: 

  • Under what circumstances do disaster displaced people qualify for refugee protection under Africa’s regional refugee protection instrument – the 1969 African Refugee Convention? 
  • How could regional agreements for the free movement of persons support the lawful movement of people who move in the context of disasters and climate change?
  • How do regional frameworks for the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Africa protect and support those displaced by disasters and climate change?
  • How can planned relocation be used to facilitate solutions for those who cannot remain at home due to disasters and climate change?

This project is being led by Dr Tamara Wood, in conjunction with a range of academic and institutional partners, including: Refugee Rights Unit, University of Cape Town; Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria; University of Nairobi; Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD); Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and International Organization for Migration (IOM).

For further information, see the project Virtual Workshop Series website

  Erica Bower and Sanjula Weerasinghe, Leaving Place, Restoring Home: Enhancing the Evidence Base on Planned Relocation Cases in the context of Hazards, Disasters, and Climate Change (Platform on Disaster Displacement and Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, 2021)
Jane McAdam and Jonathan Pryke, Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Action (Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law Policy Brief 10, October 2020)

Tamara Wood, ‘The Role of Free Movement in Preventing and Responding to Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change: A Study of Africa, Report for the Platform on Disaster Displacement (May 2019)

 Issue Cover

Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Sanjula Weerasinghe, Refugee Law in a Time of Climate Change, Disaster and Conflict: A working legal analysis of the refugee definition in the 1951 Convention and the regional refugee criteria, particularly where conflict and/or violence interacts with disaster  (UNHCR, PPLA/2020/01, January 2020)



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