The 2019-2020 Australian bushfires: from temporary evacuation to longer-term displacement

Internal displacement Bushfires Homeless families Indigenous homelessness Homelessness Australia

Bushfires that raged across Australia triggered around 65,000 new displacements between July 2019 and February 2020. They also destroyed more than 3,100 homes, potentially leading to longer-term displacement for around 8,100 people.

Expanding the collection of data on displacement triggered by disasters, including the number of people affected and the patterns of their displacement, is vital to inform better policies on prevention, emergency planning and evacuation responses, and improve the support displaced people receive.

Key findings:

  • Better planning for the next bushfire season would help to reduce displacement risk and minimise the negative impacts for people who do become displaced.
  • This paper’s findings have a number of implications for government agencies and aid providers when planning for future disasters. They highlight the need for more robust data on disaster displacement to inform planning, preparedness and responses.
  • Eighty per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area in NSW - an area inhabited for millennia by the six Indigenous language groups, who are recognised as the traditional owners - was burned. Australian laws have partially returned land to Indigenous Australians in recent decades, but the evacuations still served as a reminder of the collective trauma of permanent displacement dating back to the time of colonisation.
  • Legal centres and domestic violence agencies have expressed concerns about the heightened protection risks that women uprooted by bushfires face. Some women at risk of domestic violence encountered former partners in evacuation centres, where they suffered intimidation and even physical abuse. Others had to rely on violent former partners for a place to stay, food and other support, sometimes in breach of court orders forbidding contact.
  • By examining some of the direct impacts of displacement on the lives of those forced to leave their homes, this paper has also sought to illustrate the importance of addressing the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as women, children and Indigenous Australians, and adopting measures to reduce displacement risk.

As experts warn that bushfires will become more frequent and intense in the years to come, adopting such measures and enhancing the collection of displacement data disaggregated by sex, age and Indigenous status could play a vital role in reducing risk, strengthening resilience and minimising the negative impacts of displacement.

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