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  • Lauren Salim

A Human Rights-Based Approach to Relocation After Ecological Disasters

September 15, 2022

Pakistan Floods [Image Source: Nadeem Khawer / EPA via Shutterstock]

Heat waves, extreme weather events and other symptoms of the climate crisis have been self-evident this summer, causing thousands of deaths in the US. And in recent decades “extreme heat exposure has increased 200 percent for urban populations”.

According to the Red Cross, in 2021 “more than 40% of Americans — some 130 million people — were living in a county struck by a climate disaster”. And, certain people groups are more likely to suffer during extreme heat and other ecological threats. This may include people experiencing homelessness, prisoners, and migrants, amongst others. In Texas, for example, only 30% of prisons have air conditioning, putting prisoners and prison staff at risk.

This increased risk certainly extends to developing nations, particularly those predisposed to such threats by virtue of geography or other factors. As discussed in the previous blog, countries with fewer support systems and infrastructure are more likely to lack resilience to ecological threats when they strike. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “since 2010, weather emergencies have forced around 21.5 million people a year to move, on average”.

The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that by 2050, there will be 4.7 billion people living in countries facing high to extreme ecological threats. These at-risk people will account for an estimated 48.7% of the world’s total population.

One such example is joint Hurricanes Eta and Iota which displaced an estimated 1.7 million people when they hit Honduras and Guatemala in November 2020. Many people displaced by these hurricanes ended up in Mexico, however the fate of those displaced by climate events is never certain.

Re-settling peoples displaced by climate emergencies requires careful consideration of many factors including, which regions and countries will take them, where will they have the ability to flourish free from discrimination and with ample opportunities, how long they can stay, whether there is an option to be internally displaced versus internationally displaced, and their ability to return to their homes. As it stands, no nation offers asylum to those displaced by disasters like floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, and thus options are usually quite limited.

An aerial view of a flooded residential area in Sindh Province [Image Source: UNICEF/UN0696544/Zaidi]

Due to the complexities of the resettlement process, a human rights-based approach is best suited to the task. According to the UN, “The human rights-based approach (HRBA) is a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. It seeks to analyse inequalities which lie at the heart of development problems and redress discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power that impede development progress and often result in groups of people being left behind.”

A HRBA is relevant for addressing resettlement issues for several reasons. Putting rights and related obligations at the forefront of programming ensures that disadvantaged communities such as those displaced by a climate emergency, whose voices may often get overlooked, have a better chance of being incorporated into planning processes and have avenues of recourse should their rights be infringed upon. Additionally, a HRBA stresses that individuals have rights that need to be upheld, not just needs to be fulfilled.

These rights have legal obligations, either from their home nation or potentially the international community that can be leveraged to achieve better settlement outcomes. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 1.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights outline the right to an adequate standard of living including rights to food, housing, water, and the continuous improvement of living conditions.

Those displaced by climate emergencies may have a long road ahead of them, and we are certain to see higher numbers of displaced peoples in the coming years, but a human rights-based approach to the resettlement process will be essential to maximizing the protection of human rights during their relocation.


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