The displaced on no one’s radar

Imagine waking up one day to the sound of bulldozers on your street and to being told to leave your home because your land was to be the site of a new tourist holiday resort, road or airport. No forewarning or public consultation had been given. Local authorities support the project and want nothing to do with your complaints and concerns. Worse still, the project is supported by a major international institution, which aims to encourage the sustainable development of your nation. No international agency comes to support you in your forced resettlement. As a result of moving far from your workplace, you cannot maintain the same schedule and end up losing your job. Furthermore, you accumulate debts associated to moving that you cannot pay back. This is not an invented scenario: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2016, the most frequently cited global estimate of people displaced by development and business activities is 15 million people a year, but this figure is considered conservative.

Ethical complexity
One of the reasons why this type of violent and traumatic displacement is rarely a global priority lies in the ethical complexity of the projects in question. Unlike conflict induced displacement, which can only be qualified as negative, on the other side of the coin of development induced displacement, is the public interest argument. If a large scale development project can demonstrate that it is in the public interest, will improve self-determination and will reduce poverty (Penz, 2002), there may be grounds for considering displacing people. Yet the true value of the project must include the true cost that it will bear: compensation and resettlement of the displaced people. Too often, this true cost is not accounted for. The Brookings Institute on Internal Displacement found in 2003 that ‘while the beneficiaries of development are numerous, the costs are being borne disproportionately by the poorest and most marginalized populations’. This goes against all aspirations for sustainable development and targets set by the SDGs and human rights treaties. States often rest on the concept of their ‘eminent domain’, the right for states to expropriate property in certain circumstances (Muggah, 2003), but fail to ensure the basic rights of their citizens.

Despite the high numbers of IDPs displaced by large-scale development projects, rivalling those displaced by conflict or climate change, no UN agency has taken charge of ensuring their protection and rehabilitation. This was particularly striking during the 2016 Olympics, while the world rejoiced at the successful athletic victories of the Refugee Olympic team. To make way for the Olympic Games infrastructure, around 6600 families had been evicted. IDMC found that the compensation given to these families did not cover the cost of an adequate home and new expenses.

Millions of people need adequate protection, frameworks to ensure their rights, and international support to ensure their new lives. Cost-benefit analysis of development projects must include ways of measuring the impact that a new project will have on local communities. Cues could be taken from similar efforts in corporate sustainability to measure how much natural and social capital has to be spent to create a product (ie. how much would the production costs raise if the company had to put a price on water). Development projects cannot keep going ahead at such a high price.

Text initially submitted to the ‘Internal displacement in law and policy: war and beyond’ module for the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the Refugee Law Initiative on the 13th of January 2017.


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