* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
People fleeing disasters and climate change will be able to seek safety in neighbouring countries under the pioneering deal
Tamara Wood is lecturer in law, University of Tasmania; Centre Affiliate, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Sydney.
A breakthrough agreement to assist people fleeing natural hazards, disasters and climate change in eastern Africa was concluded this week. The deal not only allows those forced to flee disaster-affected countries to seek safety in neighbouring countries, but also ensures they will not be sent home until it safe and reasonable to return.
The new agreement – the IGAD Free Movement Protocol – was endorsed by all seven Member States of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Khartoum on 26 February. The Protocol follows years of negotiations and consultations. It marks a significant step in addressing the protection gap for growing numbers of people worldwide displaced by disasters, who often do not qualify for refugee status or other forms of international protection.
It is all the more poignant that the IGAD Free Movement Protocol takes in a region that includes some of the countries worst affected by drought, flooding and environmental degradation, including Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The combination of natural hazards and disasters with other challenges – including conflict, poverty and weak governance – makes dealing with displacement in this region a complex and multifaceted issue.
The IGAD Protocol’s protection for people affected by disasters and climate change is broad. It facilitates entry and lawful stay for those who have been displaced. It also allows those at risk of displacement to move pre-emptively as a way of avoiding, or mitigating, the impacts of a disaster.
It specifically provides for citizens of IGAD Member States to cross borders ‘in anticipation of, during or in the aftermath of disaster’, and enables disaster-affected people to remain in another country as long as return to their country of origin ‘is not possible or reasonable’.
The IGAD Protocol could provide inspiration and impetus for the use of free movement elsewhere in Africa as well. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC), free movement agreements are already in place. But it is not yet clear how disaster-affected communities in these regions will access free movement arrangements, or be protected from rejection or return when crossing an international border.
The need for African governments to further consider the role of free movement in addressing disaster and climate change displacement in Africa was the subject of a regional meeting in South Africa last year. Policymakers and experts agreed that free movement could provide some of the communities most vulnerable to climate change access to safety and opportunities for more sustainable livelihoods.
One of the advantages of using free movement arrangements to address displacement is that it obviates the need to impose specific, and sometimes artificial, distinctions between those who move. While refugee protection depends on a person meeting the technical, legal criteria of a refugee, free movement is generally available to all citizens of Member States of the same region. In some cases, a passport is not even required – possession of a national identity card may be enough to facilitate entry and stay elsewhere.
The progressive realisation of free movement is a continent-wide goal in Africa. The African Union (AU) ‘Agenda 2063’ sets out a vision of an integrated Africa, where people and goods move freely between countries. In 2018, the AU adopted the continent-wide Protocol Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment. The IGAD Protocol could provide a first step in supporting the other African regions and countries to develop specific frameworks and guidelines for the use of free movement in the context of disaster and climate change.
For the potential of the IGAD Free Movement Protocol to be realised in reality, implementation is key. At present, regional and sub-regional free movement agreements across Africa’s various RECs may be undermined by restrictive laws and policies at the national level, or by onerous documentation requirements for those who move. The IGAD Roadmap to Implementation, adopted together with the Protocol, sets out specific measures to be taken by IGAD Member States when putting free movement arrangements into practice.
The adoption of the IGAD Protocol presents a cause for celebration. It also presents a timely opportunity to further consider how countries in Africa can provide avenues to safety and security for the large, and increasing, numbers of people who move in the context of natural hazards, disasters and climate change. Action taken now could ensure the benefits of free movement for vulnerable communities well into the future.