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Informing policy regarding a new category of involuntary migrants

The drought in Jawzjan province of northern Afghanistan has made the land unfarmable © UNHCR / V Tan / 2006
The drought in Jawzjan province of northern Afghanistan has made the land unfarmable

International and national legal and normative frameworks protect the rights of many different groups of forced and involuntary migrants – refugees, stateless persons, people who are trafficked, and those displaced in their own countries by disasters and conflict. However, a new category of involuntary migrant is emerging for whom there is a significant rights ‘protection gap’.

'Environmentally displaced people' are those who are impelled or induced to migrate because their livelihoods are rendered unsustainable by proliferating natural disasters or the irreversible degradation of environmental resources resulting from the slow-onset impacts of rising sea levels and desertification. The potential scale of displacement and permanent resettlement related to climate change – estimated at between 50 and 200 million people by 2050, mostly in developing countries – constitutes a significant policy challenge.

Shaping international response

Professor Roger Zetter has been invited to make presentations to a number of international policymaking fora on his research on environmental displacement and rights protection, helping to raise the profile of these issues and to shape international responses. In April 2009, he briefed the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee) Principals in New York – the most senior UN Co-ordinating Committee dealing with humanitarian and emergency affairs – and he has also made presentations to the Geneva Centre for Peace and Security, the European Policy Centre/International Centre for Migration Policy Development in Brussels and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others.

His main contribution has been a study, co-funded by UNHCR and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the Governments of Norway and Switzerland, titled ‘Protecting environmentally displaced people: developing the capacity of legal and normative instruments’. Based in four exemplar countries – Ghana, Kenya, Bangladesh and Vietnam – this is the first systematic empirical study of the issues. The findings have informed a range of policy objectives for UNHCR and the governments of Norway and Switzerland, supporting resettlement policies for those who will be permanently displaced, advocacy and capacity building for protecting human rights, and strengthening policies for sustainable environmental and livelihood development in countries most affected by climate change.


  • Roger Zetter
    Roger Zetter

    Emeritus Professor and former Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, 2006–2011

Selected publications