Interview: Jane McAdam 'Millions of people displaced by environmental change' | Law

Interview: Jane McAdam 'Millions of people displaced by environmental change'

Interview: Dr Jane McAdam was interviewed by ABC The World Today (9 March 2017) regarding the growing threat posed by environmental change and the flight of people from places affected by natural disasters.

Jane McAdam is calling on the international community to turn its attention to the growing threat posed by environmental change and the flight of people from places affected by natural disasters. Each year 26 million people are displaced by an environmental calamity...but their plight is frequently made worse by poor warning systems and building codes, corruption, and inadequate governance. 

Professor Jane McAdam, from the Kaldor centre for International Refugee Law, spoke to Emily Bourke ahead of her speech called 'Should I Stay or Should I Go? Shaping International Responses to Climate Change, Disasters and Displacement.'

EMILY BOURKE: Do you think we've reached peak displacement in the world?

JANE MCADAM: In terms of the figures compiled by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, we have the largest number of displaced people in the world now than at any other time since World War II when records began.

Now that amounts to some 65 million displaced people of whom around 21 million are refugees. On top of that you have a very large number of people known as internally displaced persons because they are forced migrants within their own country.

But actually what doesn't get factored into that figure of 65 million is the roughly 26 million people displaced every year by the impacts of disasters. 

EMILY BOURKE: Can you paint a picture of the scope and I guess the examples that really illustrate that point around a perfect storm where you have a natural disaster and then you've got poor governance structures which mean people must move.

JANE MCADAM: I think if we look to our own region, Cyclone Pam that occurred in Vanuatu a couple of years ago. In fact we're just coming up now to the second anniversary of that.

That displaced around 70 percent of Vanuatu's population. That's, I mean that's enormous but I need to point out that most of that displacement was temporary, although certainly not all. And all of that was within the boundaries of Vanuatu, likewise Tuvalu in the aftermath of that disaster had about 45 per cent of the population displaced.

Vanuatu was actually very well prepared. They had disaster warning systems in place. They had contingency plans and they also received a lot of assistance from the international community. But they were well aware that they needed to have those preparatory responses in place which then meant that they could assist people relatively rapidly.

But in other parts of the world, those systems don't exist and it may be due to poor governance. It may also be due to a lack of resources and I guess that's where there's a question about what can the international community do to provide that additional support.

What we know is that we can avoid a lot of displacement and certainly mitigate the impacts of it, if we do have really what are quite simple things in place: like building codes that exist and that are enforced, early warning systems for disasters as I've mentioned, adaptation mechanisms. Those sorts of things can go a long way to making sure that people aren't living in really vulnerable areas.

But if you turn to a part of the world like Bangladesh for example where you have people living on river banks, flood plains, river banks that are at risk of collapse. What we see there is a lot of cyclical displacement. So people can kind of read the signs, they often know when a river bank might collapse.

They move away a couple of kilometres but then they come back and this happens over and over again and for some people there will be what we call a tipping point where it's just too much and at that point people might try and move to the capital of Dhaka or another big urban centre and they end up living in slums there. And are then at risk of exploitation and the like but some of them say, well at least here I can pull a rickshaw and earn a dollar a day and it's not great but it's better than what I was living on back where I came from. 

EMILY BOURKE: I'm wondering if there is a people smuggling, people trafficking aspect to climate change, refugees or environmental disaster refugees. Is it a push factor for people smugglers?

JANE MCADAM: Well first of all if I can first pick up on the refugee terminology. It's something that we don't use here for a number of reasons. One is that a refugee for a start is someone who crosses an international border and the vast majority of people in the circumstances we're talking about are displaced within their own country.

But the other point is that refugees are often fleeing something quite imminent and a number of the circumstances we're talking about here involve slower onset processes. So movement, the nature of movement's going to be different and the final point is that many of the people to whom that term has been ascribed like people I've interviewed in Tuvalu or Kiribas strongly reject the term.


JANE MCADAM: Well it's interesting you ask. It seems that, and this is a sad indictment perhaps of the international communities response to refugees. That they view refugees as victims who are reliant on handouts by the international community and what they say is: we are people with skills, with know how and resilience and we want to be seen as people who migrate with dignity who can offer something to New Zealand, Australia, wherever they might go. And we can fend for ourselves and be economic contributors.

And I think that's really important this notion of self help is very very strong particularly in the pacific and it's something that I think we need to think very seriously about because Australia has labour shortages in particular areas where pacific workers have great strengths, whether that be in the agricultural sector, horticulture, aged care and nursing.

EMILY BOURKE: If international law really can't deal with the disaster displaced, is there another new legal instrument, that can accommodate them.

JANE MCADAM: Well I think we need to be cautious in saying international law can't deal with this issue at all because there are elements that can.

Humans rights law for example prohibits countries from returning people to a place where their life is at risk or where they face inhuman or degrading treatment and so that may provide an answer in some cases. 

In some limited circumstances even refugee law could apply for instance.

EMILY BOURKE: What if they can't grow food in their village because the village is now submerged or gone.

JANE MCADAM: Yeah I think and the point here is that long before a village is submerged people are going to need to move which is why we need to look at these more proactive strategies of migration. Not the remedial response of, well it's all terrible now what do we do?

But I think that if we were at the point where a village were submerged, people couldn't grow crops or food, well from my perspective at that point human rights law would come to the rescue because you would be saying well it's not possible for someone to live in that environment.

But I think that before we even get to those international law answers, there are those, things we can do right now and some of them I've mentioned are things like better early warning systems. Better adaptation mechanisms. National governments ensuring that places are disaster proof as far as they can be and that people aren't living in really vulnerable environmental areas.

But the other aspect is this question of migration and giving people opportunities to move early, to move on their own terms if they want to.

EMILY BOURKE: How concerned are you that the disaster displaced could be caught up in the refugee swap, people swap deals between other third countries.

JANE MCADAM: Again, I think we need to focus on the fact that most people will be moving within their own countries. And until there is some kind of legal or bureaucratic category to even identify who we're talking about. The risk is more that people will be moving in need of safety but they won't be able to be recognised as such because we lack a mechanism to do that.

There have been a number of cases in New Zealand and Australia in fact where people from the Pacific have said, look in 20 years' time I won't be able to live in my home country.

But this is where the law understandably so seems to only look into a more immediate time frame: to say well look if we return you tomorrow, you're not at risk so that's ok and I think this is why we do need that longer term more holistic thinking. But also to look at this broader toolbox of solutions because it may well be that people can avoid being displaced at all, or certainly being displaced for as long, if we can create a series of solutions now that as a bit of a patchwork, can bolster protection at home.

Because most people don't want to leave, that's the key point of all the people I've spoken to whether it be in Bangladesh, in India, in Fiji, Tuvalu or Kiribas. They all say, we don't actually want to be moving, movement is a last resort, but we need to be attuned to the fact that we may need to because if we fail to plan, then we plan to fail.

Listen to the full interview here.