Natural disaster displacement

The fourth strand of the ‘Pushing the Boundaries’ project addresses the topical phenomenon of international migration and displacement due to disasters caused by natural hazards and State responses to these trends across the Americas. This line of research was developed by the PI on the request of the Nansen Initiative, a State-owned consultative process that aims to build consensus among states about how best to address cross-border displacement in the context of disasters.

Disasters caused by natural hazards - such as storms, earthquakes, drought, floods and volcanoes - disproportionately impact countries in the global south, a trend only likely to be exacerbated by climate change. The potential for cross-border population displacement as a consequence of these disasters has attracted considerable public attention and led to fierce debate among academics. Until now, though, both the empirical aspect of these population flows and the responses of neighbouring States to these acute humanitarian crises remain but little understood. The Americas are particularly affected by these dynamics and a nascent response among States is also evident.


This strand of the project draws on desk research and remote interviews carried out by the PI with official and other sources across the Americas (Autumn 2014). The resulting study, which was carried out by the PI partially under a consultancy with the Nansen Initiative, was finalised in December 2014. It illustrates how many States in the Americas already use existing national immigration and refugee law to provide a novel humanitarian response to cross-border migrants affected by major disasters. The study is published in full on the Nansen Initiative website and the findings are also in the process of being published in a number of articles, including this short one.  

The study was presented by the PI at the invitation of the Nansen Initiative in February 2015 at a closed workshop in San José, Costa Rica, on ‘Temporary Protection Status and/or Humanitarian Visas in Situations of Disaster’ for North American and Central American governments of the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM). The RCM governments requested a regional guidance tool be prepared, which the PI then drafted and which is currently under consideration for possible adoption by the RCM governments. By invitation, the main elements of the study were also presented and discussed by the PI with governments from around the world at the May 2015 Nansen Initiative and Chatham House Expert Meeting on ‘A Protection Agenda for Cross-Border Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change’.

Within this strand, the RLI and the Nansen Initiative also organised a closed workshop on ‘Estudios, legislación, política y práctica en materia de protección temporal humanitaria de extranjeros en el contexto de desastres’ in July 2015. This workshop was hosted by the government of Ecuador and attended by most governments of South America. The PI’s study was presented, alongside another study by the project research assistant Nicolás Rodríguez Serna, and disseminated among the participating governments. The substantial interest among the participating governments translated into proposals for further action and follow-up at the regional level envisaged.

The main outputs from this strand include:

Journal Articles
2015 ‘Disasters, Displacement and a New Framework in the Americas’ 49 Forced Migration Review 37 [OA]

Policy publications
2014 Draft Guidelines for the Regional Conference on Migration concerning ‘Humanitarian Responses to the Migratory Consequences of Natural Disasters’ (December 2014 draft for Nansen Initiative) 

2014 Study on ‘Existing State Law, Policy and Practice on Temporary Protection Mechanisms for Natural Disasters: States of the Regional Conference on Migration and Others in the Americas’ (for Nansen Initiative)

Papers presented
2015 ‘Law, Policy and Practice on Temporary Humanitarian Protection for Natural Disasters in South America’, keynote presentation at RLI /Nansen Initiative Workshop, Quito, Ecuador

2015 ‘Temporary Humanitarian Protection for Cross-Border Displacement in the Disaster Context’, keynote presentation at the Nansen Initiative High-Level Roundtable, Chatham House, London, UK

2015 ‘Asylum, Migration and Natural Disasters: A New Perspective from the Americas’, paper presented on Comparative International Refugee Protection panel (1) at the Society of Socio-Legal Scholars (SLAS) Annual Conference, Warwick University, UK

2015 ‘“Disaster Refugees” and the Humanitarian Response in the Americas’, paper presented at An Inextricable Link: Climate Change and Human Rights in Latin America conference, Institute of Latin American Studies, London, UK

2015 ‘A New Approach to the Legal Protection of Migrants affected by Natural Disasters in the Americas’, paper presented at the Refugee Law Initiative/Nansen Initiative Workshop on Climate Change, Disasters and Cross-border Displacement, University of London, UK

2015 ‘Existing Law, Policy and Practice on Temporary Protection Mechanisms for Natural Disasters: States of the Regional Conference on Migration and Others in the Americas’, keynote presentation at Regional Conference on Migration/Nansen Initiative Workshop on Development of Guidelines on Admission and Stay for People Moving the Context of Disasters in the Region of the Regional Conference on Migration, San José, Costa Rica