IN THE LAST 10 years, the issue of environmental refugees has emerged as a pressing issue. Most refugees are fleeing from natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami in 2004, or as a result of the impacts of global climate change, such as sea level rise. As the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted in 1989, “as many as 50 million people could become environmental refugees if the world does not support sustainable development.” Since then, many studies have considered this topic, with Norman Myers (one of the leading thinkers in this field) estimating that environmental refugees will soon become the largest group of involuntary migrants.
One of the difficulties in managing the issue of environmental refugees is their classification. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees classifies a refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Refugees who are outside their country for environmental reasons do not strictly speaking fit within this category. The first definition of environmental refugees came from UNEP researcher Essam El-Hinnawi in 1985: “environmental refugees are those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life [sic]. By ‘environmental disruption’ in this definition is meant any physical, chemical, and/or biological changes in the ecosystem (or resource base) that render it,
temporarily or permanently, unsuitable to support human life.” Environmental refugees are different from environmental migrants, in that they do not have any choice about their situation.
Today, there are at least 25 million environmental refugees. There are 22 million people in the world that classify as refugees under the traditional definition. Environmental refugees number one person to every 225 worldwide. A further 900 million people may also become environmental refugees because they live in marginal environments, or are driven into marginal environments for political, economic, social, cultural, legal, and institutional reasons.
EXAMPLES OF ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES
There are a number of reasons to become an environmental refugee. First, it may happen as a result of a natural disaster. Natural disasters include floods, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, or any other major event that will make the lived environment temporarily or permanently inhabitable. One example is the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat in 1995–98. As a result of these eruptions, 7,000 residents were forced to evacuate. Second, individuals or whole groups of people might become environmental refugees due to the appropriation of habitat or land by external parties, hence dispossessing and permanently displacing people.
For example, the building of the Three Gorges Dam in China has displaced up to 850,000 people and overall has the potential to displace up to 1.3 million people by 2009. Third, people may become environmental refugees as a result of an ongoing deterioration of their land and seas. Desertification is a good example as is sea level rise of the type of activity that ultimately creates environmental refugees of people in their own homelands. Movement from one area to another occurs as families and settlements find it harder to sustain livelihoods. This is the group that most often finds it hard to get support, as it is hardest for this group to be recognized as having refugee status.
There are many examples of this situation across the world due to climate change. For example, water shortages caused by climate change will cause huge reductions in agriculture and people's way of life. Tropical forests are estimated to lose another 40 to 50 percent of their cover due to climate change, and in turn this will dispossess many millions of people living within and dependent upon it for survival. Up to 500 million people could experience absolute shortages in fuel wood supply as a result of climate change impacts. Other (preliminary) estimates highlight that the total of people at risk of sea level rise in Bangladesh could be 26 million, in Egypt 12 million, in China 73 million, in India 20 million, and elsewhere 31 million, making an aggregate total of 162 million. At least another 50 million people are at risk through increased droughts, desertification, and related climate disruptions.
One response to the problem is to ensure that environmental refugees have a formal classification within the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Another is to address the root causes of the environmental problems motivating relocation of people across the world. Promoting policies of and achieving sustainable development programs is a good first step to help achieve this goal. Nations must also develop policy to address what support structures and frameworks they are going to put in place to deal with and acknowledge environmental refugees in their countries. Implementing specific projects in countries most affected is another pathway nations could take to support each other on this issue, including the relief of foreign debt and the granting of foreign aid that will help ameliorate this problem. For policymakers and governments, while the issue of how to deal with refugees is politically contentious, the plight of environmental refugees merits special attention because, due to climate change, any country may be vulnerable and need support in the future.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Diane Bates, “Environmental Refugees? Classifying Human Migrations Caused by Environmental Change,” Population and Environment (v.23/5, 2002); Derek Bell, “Environmental Refugees: What Refugees: What Rights? Which Duties?” Res Publica (v. 10, 004); Page 849 | Top of ArticleTim Dyson, “On Development, Demography and Climate Change: The End of the World as We Know it?” Population and Environment (v.27/2, 2005); E. El-Hinnawi, Environmental Refugees (UN Environmental Programme, 1985); FoE, The Citizens Guide to Climate Refugees (Friends of the Earth International, 2007); Lori Hunter, “Migration and Environmental Hazards,” Population and Environment (v.26/4, 2005); Y. Lou, “Immigration Policy Adjusted in Three Gorges,” Beijing Review (v.43, 2000); Norman Myers, “Environmental Refugees,” Population and Environment (v.19/2, 1997); R. Ramlogan, “Environmental Refugees: A Review,” Environmental Conservation (v.23, 1996); M. Tolba, “Our Biological Heritage under Siege,” Bioscience (v.39, 1989).
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