Government and governance, International relations, Law | Australia, The Pacific, The World

17 January 2020

With disasters like the Australian bushfires increasing in frequency and severity, policies must be put in place to protect those forced to move, Jane McAdam writes.

Australia’s bushfire crisis has seen some of the largest-scale evacuations in the country’s history. Thousands of people have fled their homes and properties to find safety elsewhere, including some 1,300 people rescued by the Navy from the fire-ravaged Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota. Others are sheltering in temporary evacuation centres or staying with friends or relatives until it is safe to return home.

This is what disaster displacement looks like. Or as one evacuee dramatically put it, “We are Australia’s first climate refugees.”

More on this: New Zealand: a global leader on climate and displacement?

Worldwide, more people are displaced each year within their countries by disasters than by conflict. This is happening in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Somalia, El Salvador, France, and the Philippines, and it is likely to increase as the impacts of climate change create ‘disasters on steroids’ – droughts will be more prolonged, bushfires more severe, floods more frequent, and temperatures higher.

Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and has sophisticated, state-based emergency and disaster laws and policies in place. But the lack of comprehensive national action to address the predicted worsening impact of bushfires, including through climate policy, means that devastating fires – and their accompanying economic, social, and health impacts – are going to become the new normal.

Bushfires, like other disasters, don’t respect borders. In Australia, this has led to some problems in the coordination of disaster relief efforts across state lines. Imagine, though, if the border between New South Wales and Victoria were an international one. It would be unconscionable to think that people would be prevented from crossing it to escape from the fires. However, there is currently no binding international law that specifically requires countries to admit people in such circumstances.

More on this: Policy File: Climate refugees – where to next?

This is why international efforts to address disaster displacement are focused on the need to develop migration policies and protection responses that give people at risk of disasters early options to move – in safety and with dignity. This means enabling people to leave their homes before the situation poses risks to life and limb, which may require ordinary visa requirements to be waived and migration opportunities to be expanded.

Some countries, like Fiji and Vanuatu, already have national plans in place to move people out of at-risk areas. In the Americas, a number of countries have developed regional guidance on a common approach to provide humanitarian protection to people displaced across borders by disasters, and to share information on good practices.

As the document states, this is in everyone’s interests, since ‘[t]he absence of an agreed common response has the potential to lead to irregular primary and secondary movements of foreigners, the risk of their exploitation by criminal networks, and the suffering of vulnerable migrants.’

Without international land borders, Australians do not see the displacement impacts of disasters in our own region directly. But king tides, flooding, and cyclones continue to displace people in the Pacific, and the capacity of certain countries to sustain their populations over the longer-term raises existential questions for nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati.

It is humbling that Pacific communities have been fundraising for Australians affected by the fires. People have been pushing wheelbarrows down the street collecting money, and the government of Vanuatu has committed $250,000.

For its part, Australia needs to be more proactive in developing laws and policies to enable people in our region to move out of harm’s way, and to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Implementing existing recommendations about enhancing Pacific mobility would go some way towards reducing exposure to climate impacts, and would harness migration as an adaptation strategy.

No matter what action is taken globally to address anthropogenic climate change, we are set on a course that means some degree of disaster displacement is inevitable. However, we can reduce its scale and impact if we develop, fund and implement well-attuned policies now that spare others the upheaval and loss faced by those displaced by this summer’s bushfires.

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