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Planned Relocations: Learning from Latin American Experiences

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When landslides destroy communities or sea levels rise how do governments move people out of harm’s way?  “Planned relocations” is the term being used to describe the process of moving people in order to protect them from disasters or from the effects of environmental change.

From 2-3 May 2018, KNOMAD's Thematic Working Group on Environmental Change and Migration organized a workshop in Costa Rica to learn from Latin America’s experiences with planned relocations.  The workshop brought together about 30 representatives of Latin American governments, academic experts and staff of international and regional organizations to share their experiences.  Representatives from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Platform for Disaster Displacement also underscored the importance of protection, rights-based legal frameworks and the need for participatory approaches to relocations.

Most of the meeting was devoted to participants’ recount of a wide variety of experiences in relocating communities – from the relocation of the entire population of Barbuda to Antigua in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017 to the incorporation of relocations into urban planning processes in Medellin, Colombia. 

Participants also reviewed a Toolbox on: Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change which was developed in 2017 by Georgetown University, UNHCR, IOM, in collaboration with the KNOMAD/World Bank and the UN University. 
This workshop highlighted several problematic issues in the Latin American context:  land (particularly when updated land registries aren’t available), the need for adequate financing, and the challenge of ensuring the participation of affected communities in the planning process.
Moreover, with one-third of Latin America’s population living in disaster-prone areas, it is likely that relocations will become increasingly common in the future in both rural and urban areas. Responsibility for relocations rests with different government authorities in different countries.   In some cases, municipal authorities are in the lead, in other places, it is national ministries working on disaster risk reduction or on housing that are in charge. Comprehensive policies to guide relocation efforts are lacking. In fact, no Latin American country has yet adopted a national relocation policy.

In the discussion, participants lamented the lack of tools to conduct comprehensive cost-benefit analyses and several participants shared unsuccessful relocation experiences. While the State has primary responsibility for planned relocations, some participants argued that there is a need to see these efforts in terms of co-responsibility where those who are being relocated also assume some responsibility. 
Although the Toolbox was intended for situations where there is time for planning, the Latin American experiences emphasized that relocations are often taking place in the immediate aftermath of disasters – when there isn’t time for comprehensive planning processes. 

The workshop in Costa Rica underscored the need for more research to understand what works in particular situations. Most of all, given the prevalence of disasters in the region and the reality of climate change, the workshop highlighted the need to visibilizar – to make visible – the issue of planned relocations.  


Elizabeth Ferris

Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

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