Policy analysis

22 October 2020

IDMC has been busting myths around displacement linked with climate change and disasters since 2008. Let’s join forces.

As we speak, the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) worldwide has reached an all-time high. Disasters triggered the majority of new displacements in 2019, almost 25 million or two-thirds of the total, and most were linked to weather-related hazards such as storms, floods and droughts. With the expected impacts of climate change, these numbers will likely increase unless we get serious about addressing the structural causes that expose people and make them vulnerable to disaster displacement. 

In the past months, however, IDMC has become concerned by the narrative that surrounds climate change and displacement, largely fuelled by unverified rumours circulating on social media. Just as the World Health Organization is fighting ‘infodemics’ related to COVID-19, we feel the need to tackle misinformation about displaced populations. There are a number of myths that are being perpetuated at the peril of those affected by disaster displacement. IDMC has been monitoring and analysing disaster displacement since 2008, and we want to counter these myths with the evidence we have gathered over more than two decades.

We are well aware that 2021 presents a unique opportunity to act. If we let the myths persist, we will remain stuck in policy responses that will not bring us any nearer to the goals of the sustainable development agenda or to reducing internal displacement and the suffering of IDPs.

So what are the myths and why are they dangerous?

Myth 1: Disaster displacement is temporary

The most common myth is that people who have been uprooted from their homes by a disaster, pre-emptively or spontaneously evacuated, return quickly to reconstruct their houses and rebuild their lives. As a result, national policies and response mechanisms often do not recognise displacement in the context of disasters, severely limiting IDP’s access to support and services and resulting in a lack of accountability of local and national agencies.

Unfortunately, in many cases this is not true as people remain displaced for months or even years. In Mozambique, around 87,000 people displaced by cyclone Idai in March 2020 were still living in resettlement sites at the end of July. As of the 31st December 2019, we published the first-ever global figure of 5.1 million people living in internal displacement in the context of disasters. While still highly conservative, this figure shows that protracted disaster displacement is a reality and growing concern across the globe. 

Myth 2: You can’t prevent disasters 

The perception that disasters are natural and something that may be prepared for, but not prevented, remains widespread, despite extensive evidence to the contrary. Consequently, most national and international efforts still focus on preparedness and humanitarian assistance, rather than addressing the root causes of disaster displacement and building resilience to withstand its effects. 

We know that differences in income, age, abilities, social status, assets and access to services and social networks can make all the difference when it comes to people’s exposure and vulnerability to disaster displacement and to the negative impacts of climate change. For instance, this year’s bushfires in Australia exposed pre-existing vulnerabilities of indigenous populations who were disproportionately affected as a result. In Yemen, recent flooding had a dramatic impact on low-income neighbourhoods in the city of Sana’a where IDPs settled in vulnerable housing, resulting in further displacement. IDMC is the first organisation to develop a global disaster displacement risk assessment, combining assessments of hazards, vulnerability and exposure to model the risk of future displacement. 

Myth 3: Climate change will trigger millions of new refugees 

Climate change is seen as directly and automatically translating to large-scale, cross-border movements of people and significant new migration to high-income regions. This risks restricting both human mobility and access to international protection, sometimes at the cost of more investment in risk reduction, peace building and sustainable development. In reality, climate migration is largely internal. According to the World Bank, without urgent global and national action, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could see more than 140 million people move within their countries by 2050.

Our original research on the complex dynamics of human mobility in the context of climate change and on the many factors influencing internal to cross-border flight among IDPs and refugees, provides a very different picture to the common narrative of billions of migrants on the borders of Europe. Instead of directing attention toward border controls and deterrence, it supports a renewed emphasis on resilience building in countries most affected by climate change and a focus on local and national leadership.

Tackling the future together

With the spread of misinformation, the discourse is in danger of getting derailed even further in the coming months and years. IDMC is fortunate to partner with leading experts and institutions that counter the narrative of climate displacement and fight against public hysteria and resulting policy inertia. We want to build on these partnerships and make new connections to tackle these persisting myths on displacement linked with climate change and disasters.  

Over the next six months, IDMC will convene a series of expert forums to tackle these myths. The groups will be by invitation only and will bring together data and risk experts, policy makers and operational actors. The aim is to refocus the debate, built on a solid evidence-base; to exchange on the many existing metrics, tools and platforms available for policy makers; and to generate an environment for risk-informed humanitarian and development planning. 

We will kick off the process by hosting two high-level events; one before the end of the year and one in early 2021. The online events will explore the relationship between climate change, disaster risk and internal displacement and share and assess good practices. These discussions will directly contribute to our 2021 Global Report on Internal Displacement and help us and our partners to shape the policy discourse, research agenda and programme priorities on climate change and disaster displacement for years to come. Therefore, I sincerely hope that you will join us to enrich the debate with your experience, knowledge and visions. Let’s start preparing for 2030 now.

If you are interested in participating in the kick-off events, please contact Caressa.Kok@idmc.ch