IPI HomeEventsPanel DiscussionsIn Horn of Africa, Links Between Disaster, Conflict, and Displacement


print print  |  share share back back

Panel Discussions - Thursday, April 03, 2014

In Horn of Africa, Links Between Disaster, Conflict, and Displacement

What are the links between climate change, conflict, and the displacement of people? A panel of experts discussed this nexus and its implications in the Horn of Africa at the International Peace Institute on April 3rd in an event cosponsored by the Nansen Initiative.

It’s clear that these phenomena are interrelated in the modern world, argued Udo Janz, Director of the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Who is to say, for example, whether people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe are “driven by climate change, persecution, drought, or conflict?” he asked. “It is probably a compound of all those reasons.”

To illustrate the urgency of that particular flow of people, he noted that some 24,000 people have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean in recent years. These recorded incidents, he added, are probably just “the tip of the iceberg and not a reflection of the true figures."

The Logic of Identity

The overlapping of these phenomena is especially complex in the Horn of Africa, where 70 percent of the landmass is considered arid or semi-arid and is sparsely populated, noted Samuel Doe, Senior Policy Adviser at the UN Development Programme’s Policy Planning Division Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

There—and a growing trend elsewhere—“climate change, resulting in more frequent and severe disasters, as well as overall environmental degradation, can in turn lead to conflict as it exacerbates competition for resources and social tension," said Jérémie Labbé, IPI Research Fellow for Humanitarian Affairs, who chaired the event.

In the Horn of Africa, “the predominant culture is a relationship between those who are pastoralists and those who are agri-pastoralists,” said Mr. Doe. For centuries, these populations have migrated for opportunity or as a “coping mechanism” when droughts occurred, he noted. For them, “the logic of movement and the logic of identity is also significantly different from the current modern citizen notion that we have to wrestle with," he said.

Migrations across borders—or even between regions within a country—have spurred more conflict in part because of the proliferation of small arms, said Walter Kaelin, Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative. The Nansen Initiative, a multilateral organization comprised of government and NGOs, aims to develop cross-border partnerships and solutions before crises occur.

Mr. Kaelin added that the “legitimate interests of governments to control their borders” against threat of terrorism have severely limited pastoralists’ migrations, which, in turn, further cripples their resilience with regards to environmental hardships and war.

Planning Versus Reacting

The cyclical relationship of disaster, conflict and displacement will multiply as the effects of climate change are felt in more places around the globe, said Mr. Janz. “And yet we do not have an international instrument to accord refugee status for people” who are “being pushed out by climate-related changes,” he added.

These complex and evolving challenges are going to require equally intricate innovations, argued Mr. Janz. He said one major obstacle is the industry of human trafficking. “We must curtail the smuggling business,” he said, and explained that this industry is “much more profitable” than “even gun or heroin smuggling.”

Simply learning how to anticipate migrations and develop policy accordingly remains a challenge, the UN refugee expert contended. “The idea of planning for population movements even a few years ago was sacrilege,” he said.

Mr. Janz praised the idea of “preventive movements and collaborative solutions rather than simply reacting to the crises.” He added that although frameworks for innovative solutions are now being developed, to be effective, these measures will require resources to implement and build transnational institutions.

“Frankly, it’s a far more productive investment” than the traditional approach, which is “to build fences ever higher,” he argued. Countries of asylum “put huge amounts of cash into basically deterrent measures to try to prevent people from coming,” he said in closing. “You will not succeed with that approach. It is quite clear.”

Listen to the Global Observatory interview with Walter Kaelin>>

Watch event:

The Global Observatory

India-US Cooperation Grows With Obama Visit
The visit is particularly important for efforts related to stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Key Global Events to Watch in January
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2015: Ten Multilateral Events to Watch This Year
A list of ten events that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2015, compiled by IPI’s Francesco Mancini.

The Global Observatory, produced by IPI, provides timely analysis on peace and security issues, interviews with leading policymakers, interactive maps, and more.

Recent Events

January 20, 2015
Mongolian Foreign Policy Between ''Two Giants''
On January 20, Mongolia’s new Foreign Minister Purevsuren Lundeg visited the IPI Vienna office and gave an informal briefing on Mongolia’s contemporary foreign policy priorities and challenges.

January 20, 2015
Dutch FM Koenders: ''The Security Council Has to Change''
Speaking to an overflow IPI audience on January 20th, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders acknowledged how far the United Nations has come since its inception 70 years ago but said that the organization still “has a lot of growing up to do.”

December 15, 2014
Fathi: Iran and the Struggle Between Hardliners and Reformers
Discussing her new book The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran at IPI on December 15th, author Nazila Fathi said that 35 years after the revolution, Iran is divided between hardliners and a large moderate middle class, but admitted that it is still unclear which of the two sides will gain the upper hand.

View More