Turning the narrative on disaster displacement in the Global North

Blog post by Ana Mosneaga, PhD, a migration and displacement specialist currently working as Lecturer at the College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. She is also part of the RLI’s IDRP Senior Research Associates commu…

Blog post by Ana Mosneaga, PhD, a migration and displacement specialist currently working as Lecturer at the College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. She is also part of the RLI’s IDRP Senior Research Associates community.


Taigan no kaji (対岸の火事)’ is the Japanese idiom that literally means a fire on the opposite river bank. It is used to refer to an attitude when people observe something that poses grave threat for others with calm, since they perceive it as posing no risk or harm to themselves. In the discussions on internal displacement in general, and disaster displacement in particular, this expression seems to aptly capture the stance among high-income countries. The dominant perception among the policy-makers as well as the general public in the Global North continue to regard internally displaced persons (IDPs) as if it was an issue that can be only encountered in the Global South. This is why, people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, by the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan in 2011, or by bushfires in Australia in 2019-2020 are almost never referred to as IDPs.

One of the underlying factors here has to do with the traditional association between internal displacement and situations of conflict and violence. The widely circulated message during the past years that the world is witnessing an unprecedented level of displacement is based on the UNHCR figures, which include internal and cross-border displacements due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order”, but not due to disasters. This is not surprising, as data on conflict displacement, even while being “inherently political, sensitive and contentious”, is still comparatively more readily available than data on disaster displacement. In fact, data on conflict-induced IDPs was collected since 1990, with first global estimate released in 1998. In contrast, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) began monitoring disaster displacement only since 2008 and published its first ever estimate on stock figures of disaster-induced IDPs in April, 2020. This represents an important step forward in consolidating the evidence, hitherto available only on anecdotal basis, that displacement triggered by disasters can also be protracted and complex to resolve.

Yet better availability of disaster displacement data alone, while tremendously needed, is unlikely to counter the well-established notion of displacement as an “exclusive ‘problem’ for the Global South” among high-income countries. This perception is also rooted in their confidence that the presence of more sophisticated preparedness, early-warning and response systems will not turn disaster displacement into a serious, long-term problem issue for them. While such systems are undoubtedly important, what may be considered as a highly improbable combination of events do nonetheless happen, resulting in cascading disasters and entailing complex displacement dynamics. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, with subsequent massive displacements, serves as a case in point that has revealed multiple systemic deficiencies in a country otherwise “recognised as a global champion of disaster risk reduction”. Towards this end, recent research on the situation of Fukushima IDPs shows that finding solutions becomes highly evasive, when vulnerabilities triggered by displacement become tightly intertwined with structural problems in society. Even in Europe, which has been traditionally considered to be relatively less disaster-prone, the robustness of the existing systems in the face of displacements resulting from more frequent and intensified storms, floods or coastal erosions should not be taken for granted.

The cumulative effect of this perception is that it creates a false impression that developed world is somehow “immune” to disaster displacement. In policy-making, this precludes the recognition of displacement as a real and serious consequence of disasters thereby under-prioritising investment into pro-active measures and reforms to address existing patterns of vulnerabilities and strengthen resilience in the long-run. When disasters do lead to displacements in high-income countries, these are often quickly labelled as “unprecedented” exceptional events with “inevitable” consequences. Such framing does little to facilitate the much-needed reflections on addressing the root causes of disaster displacement in the first place. In public dicourse, the same false impression provides a pretext to consider disaster displacement as rare, episodic phenomena that only happens to “distant others”. When disasters do happen, however such perception may add to people’s “normalcy bias”, preventing them to fully appreciate the urgency of the situation and resulting in such behaviour as flouting evacuation orders. Moreover, considering that disaster displacement does not happen in the Global North also plays into the popular myth about waves of climate migrants from Global South flooding into high-income countries in the future. Besides ignoring existing evidence that most of such migration and displacement happens within national borders and that it is an already on-going reality rather than a future threat, this myth also risks serving xenophobic purposes that justify “more border controls and restrictive migration policies”.

In the age when disasters, be it from geophysical hazards or from the impacts of climate change are becoming more disruptive and costly to deal with even for the world’s most resourceful economies, there is a need to promote greater awareness of disaster displacement as a truly global issue that affects all countries. The establishment of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement to improve attention and galvanize political will to address the plight of IDPs in conflicts and disaster situations provides a critical opportunity in raising such awareness. The plethora of topical articles, reports, and opinion pieces published and virtual events organised since the Panel began its work in February 2020 has definitely contributed to this.

Understandably, most of such activities have focused on cases in low and middle-income countries that bear the brunt of various forms of displacement. In the light of the restrictions posed by COVID-19, the Panel collaborated with UN agencies and NGOs on the ground to undertake consultations with IDPs and host community members from 24 such countries. This is totally justified considering the rationale for the establishment of the Panel, as well as the finite time and resources that it has its disposal.

However, unless, policy-makers and the public in the Global North also recognise disaster displacement as an on-going issue that affects themselves, the “progress in facilitating lasting solutions or in improving efforts to prevent displacement in the first place” in  this area is likely to remain limited. According to the Programme of Work for the remaining months before the release of its final report in September 2021, the Panel will continue engagement with various stakeholders, with an emphasis on “displacement affected states” and “donor governments who have engaged in diplomacy with affected states”. This will also the opportune moment where the Panel could raise the importance of understanding disaster displacement as a truly global concern for each and every Member State.  Turning the dominant narrative is a necessary step to take if the genuine political will and commitment to address displacement in contexts of disasters and climate change is to be achieved.  

Bio

Ana Mosneaga, PhD, is a migration and displacement specialist currently working as Lecturer at the College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. She is also part of the RLI’s IDRP Senior Research Associates community.

Ana researches how diverse population movements are sought to be managed in policy and practice, and the implications this carries for the lives of migrants, refugees and IDPs. She has analysed a wide variety of migration phenomena, which were often under-researched at that time: ranging from internal displacement after the March 2011 disasters in Japan, to the management of international students’ migration in the EU.

Ana has previously served both as an expert and coordinator for research, policy development and advocacy initiatives in international organisations (including WFP, UNU, European Commission and ILO), NGOs, academia and private sector. Through her professional experience, Ana also obtained first-hand insight into the making of international agreements: hereunder she was actively involved in discussions on the Global Compact on Refugees representing Japan Platform, a consortia of Japan-based humanitarian NGOs    


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

This post was originally published on Refugee Law Initiative Blog.


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