Abstract

Motivation

Should the process of forcibly evicting people from customary land be classified as a ‘disaster’? Some international organizations and governments are integrating processes on forced eviction of urban residents into policies that are primarily designed to manage displacements due to climate change and disasters – such as Vanuatu’s 2018 National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster‐Induced Displacement.

Purpose

This paper contextualizes the classification of evictions as ‘disasters’. We argue that evictions are not disasters and should not be so‐classified. We make these arguments from an empirical position, based on community response to the declaration of eviction as disaster, and also from the perspective of international law.

Approach and Methods

Our data come from the following sources:

Communities: We use a storytelling method to interview around 100 women and men. The policy: We review the language of the Vanuatu policy in the context of international guidance on displacement generally and on forced eviction specifically. Public records: We use court records and newspaper reporting to understand claims of government, land claimants, and the survivors. Policy‐makers: A limited number of unofficial conversations with policy‐makers inform this work.

Findings

Urban forced evictions should not be treated as ‘disasters’ in policy on forced displacement. Our interviewees identify the equation of eviction and ‘disaster’ as one that removes the agency of the government to protect their human rights. The evidence presented here suggests that the Government of Vanuatu does not have sufficient powers to intervene in some forced evictions from customary land. This raises critical questions about whether the government will be able to fulfil the promises made in the policy and in its obligations under international law relating to displacement.

Policy Implications

Classifying forced evictions together with land conflicts, infrastructure, and development, as potential ‘crises’, and so ‘disastrous’, as does the Vanuatu policy, creates a new set of challenges that now must be managed as the policy is operationalized. This includes serious consideration of how countries that take this path will fulfil their obligations to protect against displacement, avoid and minimize it, in the context of customary land, and meet other international policy standards, in order to ensure no one is left worse off. This is a timely issue for peer countries. Right now, other Pacific countries, including the Solomon Islands and Fiji, are looking to Vanuatu’s example to develop internal displacement policies of their own.

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