Climate & refugees

Disasters and refugee protection – a socio-legal case study from Yemen

Every year millions of people are forced to flee their homes in the context of climate change and disasters. Their needs and rights are unclear. This paper presents and discusses some findings from a socio-legal case study exploring the rights of disaster-affected Somalis and Ethiopians in Yemen. The first main findings relate to the challenges that Ethiopians face in accessing, and succeeding with, the formal asylum process. This is discussed in light of legal aid theory and research as well as research on credibility assessments. Another category of findings relates to interactions of local, religious law and international law. This is discussed in light of legal pluralism, which helps in identifying an emancipatory potential. While complex, dynamic and depending on regional politics and other factors, the way Islamic law is applied - and influences other bodies of law - seems to ensure better protection than the 1951 Refugee Convention alone. This potential should be further explored and possibly expanded in order to strengthen the rights of people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters more generally.

Read the full conference paper

Seminar: Climate change and displacement - the role of law

On 3rd February, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Law Faculty at the University of Oslo organised a seminar on climate change, displacement and the law.

Professor Walter Kälin who is political envoy of the Nansen Initiative was one of the speakers.

Marianne Karlsen, from Ministry of Climate and Environment, explained how displacement was recognised in the UN climate negotiations.

I presented some main findings from my doctoral thesis. The Introduction (“kappa”) is available

An audio-visual from the seminar is available here.

Doctoral defence

On 24th January, I gave two trial lectures and defended my doctoral thesis for the degree Dr. Philos. in Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.

Every year millions are forced to flee their homes in the context of disasters associated with climate change and natural hazards. This thesis seeks to help secure real rights for those displaced. In order to do so, I explore the lives and rights of displaced people through interviews with them, government officials, UN actors and others. I also analyse relevant formal law.

The Introduction (“kappa”) of the doctoral is available

Information about the trial lectures and defence is available

In the media:

Climate refugees hard hit by unclear laws, ScienceNordic, 14 May 2014.

Klimaflyktning i lov og praksis, Morgenbladet, 24 January 2014.

Klimaflyktninger rammes hardt av uklare lover,, 17 April 2014

Klimaflyktninger rammes hardt av uklare lover,, 25 April 2014.

New paper on "climate refugees"

A paper of mine that was recently published in the International Journal of Social Science Studies, discusses the protection of Somalis who were displaced to Kenya and Egypt during the 2011 and 2012 drought. The full paper is available online here.

Natural hazard-related disasters, including those associated with climate change, displace millions of people. Those displaced across international state borders face particular challenges with regards to legal status and rights protection. This paper discusses to what extent, and how, this group of displaced people are protected, and indicates how their protection can be further strengthened. The discussion draws on case studies of Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt during the 2011 and 2012 drought. Appreciation of the contextual vulnerability in disasters and the multi-causality of displacement can, and should, inform the interpretation of the refugee concept(s). In Kenya, for example, all Somalis were given refugee status on a prima facie group basis due to the presence of generalised violence as well as drought in their home country. In Egypt, the decision-makers operated with a different understanding and practice, and many Somalis risked falling outside the refugee definition(s). Beyond getting a formal refugee status recognition, however, there may also be protection issues related to formal law such as restrictions on inter alia the right to work and freedom of movement, as well as issues related to operational capacity and resources such as lack of shelter and security. A series of extra-legal factors must be given due consideration both to ensure that the protection capacity of existing law is employed to its fullest and that new legal and policy developments become effective.

What Gestalt Approaches can Contribute to Climate Change Transformation

The Journal of Sustainable Development recently published a paper I wrote on what Gestalt approaches can contribute to climate change transformation. It is available here.

With the realization that some climate change is inevitable regardless of mitigation efforts, the recognition of the importance of climate change adaptation and transformation has increased. As a first attempt to link Gestalt approaches and climate change transformation, this paper discusses certain Gestalt concepts that are of relevance to, and may enrich, the concept of climate change transformation in general and transformational adaptation in the Dadaab refugee camps in the semi-arid Kenyan-Somali border area in particular.

New book chapter: The rights of internally displaced persons in connection with natural hazard-related disasters

The book A Changing Environment for Human Security is out. It contains critical analyses, case studies and reflections on contemporary environmental and social challenges, with a strong emphasis on those related to climate change. My chapter focuses on internal displacement in connection with climate change and disasters. Get in touch if you would like a pre-print draft of the chapter.

The book is available here:
“The rights of internally displaced persons in connection with natural hazard-related disasters”, ch 14, in L. Sygna, K. O’Brien and J. Wolf (eds) A Changing Environment for Human Security: Transformative Approaches to Research, Policy and Action. Routledge.

My chapter begins by presenting the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. While the Guiding Principles apply to internal displacement in the context of climate change and natural hazard-related disasters, many states, UN agencies, NGOs and academics have continued to neglect or actively discriminate against persons displaced by disasters. Some crucial challenges are discussed. The chapter then moves on to the two case studies and explores what major issues arose in the context of the 26 December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and how they were framed as human rights issues.

Non-discrimination is a paramount principle in human rights and was relevant in both disasters. For example, in connection with Katrina, rescue and evacuation plans were based on the assumption that people would use their private vehicles, indirectly discriminating against poor Afro-American communities who did not own private cars. In Sri Lanka, “buffer zones” were established along the coast in a discriminatory manner allowing construction of tourism facilities while local residents, particularly the poor and Tamils, were not allowed to return and reconstruct their homes.

Participation is another key element in dignity, human rights and contemporary international law in general. A common post-tsunami complaint was that IDPs were not consulted on decisions that affected them, including evacuations and issues of return, resettlement and reconstruction. There was a similar situation with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

On the basis of freedom of movement, Guiding Principle 28 spells out three durable solutions, including choosing to return home. This was yet another rights issue that arose. For conflict displaced persons, returning to the place of origin remains a (future) option, but in some disaster situations people simply cannot return. For example, during the tsunami some villages became part of the sea. As in the case of initial evacuation or relocation, it can only be for the safety and health of those affected that a state prohibits return to an area. According to the Guiding Principles, IDPs should also be protected against forcible return or resettlement to places where their life, safety, liberty or health would be at risk.

Although the contexts were very different, this chapter shows how major human rights principles such as non-discrimination and participation were seen as relevant in a western, developed country and developing, Asian countries.

The chapter then highlights some domestic as well as international developments after the disasters. In the aftermath of the tsunami there was increased international recognition of the importance of a human rights approach in dealing with those affected by disasters, as illustrated through for example the development of the IASC Operational Guidelines and Field Manual on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disaster. A transformation may be that we start seeing disasters not merely as natural, but rather see how human rights (violations) play a role in vulnerability and that human rights can be a framework for addressing displacement as well as disaster risk reduction, response, and recovery more generally.

The chapter concludes with a short consideration of how rights can be further promoted by turning the attention to humanisation. While we may recognise that all humans should have certain rights, we often dehumanise some people so much that they are no longer fully seen as humans that can claim such rights. This happened before, during and after the two disasters. One way of addressing this dehumanisation is through insisting on a human rights approach and storytelling and the internationalisation of the issues.

Driven Out By Drought - article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs

The Spring 2013 issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, featuring Special Report: Humanity on the Move, is now online: 

My piece on Somalis displaced by drought to Kenya and Egypt is available here:

Global average temperatures are rising, and the weather is becoming wilder. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change is a factor in certain disasters such as storms, floods and droughts. Population growth and density, poverty and armed conflicts are also contributing to a changing pattern in disasters. According to a study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 14.9 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2011; the majority by climate-related disasters such as storms and floods. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled slow-onset disasters, such as the drought that developed into a famine in the Horn of Africa. Among them are Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt.

Those who flee persecution qualify for refugee status, according to the refugee definition of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. There are wider regional refugee definitions such as the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1969. This classified generalized violence and events seriously disturbing public order in the definition. For many of those displaced to another country in the context of disasters, however, there is no international legislation providing a clear and secure basis for their rights and protection. The Kenyan and Egyptian contexts offer an opportunity to understand what this means for people on the ground.

New paper on Somali "climate refugees" in Kenya and Egypt

While most East African countries were badly affected by drought in 2011, the situation was almost beyond imagination in Somalia with famine being declared in several regions. It was the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world in 2011 and Africa’s worst food security crisis since Somalia’s 1991 and 1992 famine. Throughout 2011, large numbers of destitute agro-pastoralists and others fled the country in search of assistance. This study explores the experiences of, and responses to, some of the Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt.

“Gaps in Geneva, gaps on the ground: case studies of Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt during the 2011 drought”, New Issues in Refugee Research, UNHCR, December 2012.