August 7, 2020

Inclusive data on disaster displacement must include indigenous people

Disasters caused by storms, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other natural hazards triggered 24.9 million new displacements across 140 countries and territories around the world in 2019. This is equivalent to almost the entire population of Australia. Disaster displacement occurs in every country, and it can affect anyone: rich and poor, those living in urban centres as well as rural villages. Populations with underlying vulnerabilities, however, suffer the most.
In addition to the heightened threat posed by COVID-19, indigenous communities are among the groups most at risk of disaster displacement. While data on this remains scarce, anecdotal reports of indigenous people having to flee their homes or their land from disasters are well-known. Ahead of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, focusing this year on their resilience in the face of the pandemic, we explore the unique vulnerabilities, challenges and impacts for indigenous people when faced with disaster displacement.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNRIP) underscores the importance of self-identification, that indigenous people themselves define their own identity as indigenous. While there is no internationally recognised definition, it is estimated that there are at least 370 million indigenous persons living in the world today. Many reside in sensitive ecosystems, from the Arctic to the Andean mountains and Amazon, as well as deserts, riversides and coastlines, and are heavily reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods and wellbeing. Although representing six per cent of the world’s population, indigenous people account for about 15 percent of the world’s poorest people. In Latin America, studies have shown that indigenous populations are overwhelmingly poor, and the share of indigenous people in poverty has not seen improvement over the years.
These characteristics make indigenous communities vulnerable to disasters and the risk of displacement. The habitats they live in make them highly exposed to natural hazards, for example, they are among the first to face the effects of climate change. While the conditions and contexts differ from country to country, this is a growing issue for indigenous communities. It has resulted in complaints submitted to the UN system, including one in January 2020 by five US tribes in Alaska and Louisiana that specifically addresses internal displacement as a result of climate-related impacts.
Poverty is exacerbated by economic or political structures that often create marginalisation and discrimination for indigenous groups. For instance, in Australia, unemployment rates across all age groups are higher for indigenous than non-indigenous people, which leads to housing insecurity and low property ownership. This creates conditions where indigenous people may not have a home to return to or may face barriers to finding durable solutions following a disaster.
Disaster-induced displacement is often viewed as a temporary phenomenon, yet it can easily become protracted when it’s not safe or possible to return and measures to relocate or locally integrate people are limited or absent. Displacement can pose specific challenges to indigenous communities in terms of how to access aid and resources, who is responsible for temporary evacuations, or what options there are for durable solutions through return, reintegration or resettlement, as described below.
Indigenous communities are often situated in isolated locations, which makes it challenging for authorities to respond and provide aid after a disaster. In the Philippines, many indigenous groups live in forested areas far from cities and supplies. Following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, they were some of the worst hit communities. In Tagbanua, in the north of Palawan, almost all homes were totally or partially damaged.