However, unlike victims of political upheaval, who can obtain financial and medical aid, food and shelter through governments and international organisations, environmental refugees are not yet recognised by world conventions.
A major problem has been that until now, even the United Nations has no official status for those who are environmental refugees. Thus there is no official acknowledgement that the affected people are refugees seeking asylum. Since those affected are called “environmental migrants”, the legal status of those who should be “refugees” is undermined to the extent that they are not officially obliged to be given asylum. However, experts from the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) stressed that there is an urgent need to define a new category of refugees.
Prof. Hans van Ginkel, Rector of the United Nations University, further emphasises that environment-related refugees must be distinguished from economic migrants, who depart voluntarily to find a better life but may return home. While the victims of sudden and highly-publicised natural disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami, the Pakistan floods in 2007 and 2012 and Hurricane Sandy in the USA benefit from the generosity of the private and public sector, the circumstances which turn citizens into environmental refugees often happen silently and gradually, far away from the attention of the world.
One example of those “silent catastrophes” is the Gobi desert in China, which expands every year by more than 10,000 square kilometres, threatening many villages and fertile soils. On the other side of the globe, Louisiana in the US loses around 65 square kilometres per year to the sea, and in Alaska 213 communities are threatened by tides that flow inland by up to three metres a year. The melting of the perma-frost soil will affect the building ground of Siberia and other regions of the world and in the UK, about 10 million people live in flood-risk areas.
It is difficult to estimate the extent of environmental migration. At this point in time, the UNU-EHS experts suggest that 50 million people are escaping from the effects of environmental deterioration. Other estimates suggest that between 20 to 150 million people may be affected. According to Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics, global warming could create some 200 million climate refugees by 2050 but Christian Aid suggests one billion for the same period of time. The former Global Humanitarian Forum pointed out that every year the deaths of over 300,000 people are attributable to climate change and another 325 million are seriously affected. Meanwhile, over 135 million people, as many as the combined populations of France and Germany, are in danger of being driven from their land. This is why the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considers climate change to be a major challenge in the 21st century.
The Developing World Pays for the Failures of the Industrialised Nations
Almost two billion people in the world today depend on the fragile ecosystems in arid and semi-arid areas, and 90 percent of them live in the developing world. So the effects of global warming, mainly caused by the industrialised nations, hit the poorest nations most. Here, ecological stresses caused by droughts and desertification are threatening livelihoods and food–certain crops and livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Small-scale farmers are particularly hard hit. With this leading to an increasing number of people competing for a decreasing amount of resources, environmental migration also has the potential to create conflicts with other communities.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for instance blames the ethnic and religious violence in Darfur on global warming: “The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change,” he states in the Washington Post. Further causes that lead to environmental migration due to global warming are monsoons, floodings and the disruption of seasonal weather patterns. Calculations have revealed that sea levels could rise by 12 centimetres by 2030 and 50 centimetres by 2100. Since an estimated 50 per cent of humanity inhabits coastal zones including low-lying island groups, many more people will become affected (see out newsblog If All the Ice Melted, How Would the World’s Coastlines Look for more information on this topic).
In late 2012, the Environmental Justice Foundation released a report looking at how climate change infringes upon basic human rights and how this is particularly emphasised through displacement as a result of environmental disasters.
Analysing responses and recovery methods to natural disasters in Bangladesh, as well as the way that climate change is affecting daily life in areas such as agriculture and access to safe drinking water, the report presented some alarming findings, such as:
- recovery after major natural disasters can take up to 18 months;
- how saltwater intrusion into open water sources threatens access to safe drinking water, sanitation and water for irrigation;
- increasingly erratic rainfall and temperatures affecting crop yields;
- how social inequalities such as education, skills and poverty correlate to people’s vulnerability during climate disasters; and
- the gradual decline in environmental security and how events such as floods and storms are forcing people to migrate from rural to urban areas, placing huge stress on cities’ resources and resulting in a growing number of people living in slums.
The Need to Meet Domestic as Well as International Challenges
Some countries will need to equip themselves to deal with both domestic and foreign environmental migrants. Take India for example. Dr. Hefin Jones from Cardiff University estimated that the country itself will have around 30 million environmental migrants within 50 years. At the same time, the current illegal influx from Bangladesh will rise. According to Jones, in future decades around 15 million affected persons in Bangladesh and around 30 million persons in China will be required to leave their local area because of the rising sea levels, erosion and scarce soil fertility due to climate change. The average temperature in India, Jones continues, will increase by 3 to 5 degree Celsius by 2100. The warming will be felt mainly in the Northern parts and will lead to a 20 percent rise in the summer monsoon rainfall. In addition, the estimated rise in sea level in the Bamgla coastal areas will be one metre in 2050 and two metres in 2100.
As a result, it is expected that the sea will submerge most of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta including the Sunderbans. Being the largest delta region in the world, its 12 southern islands are threatened with erosion and submergence. Prof. Sugata Hazra from the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, estimates that out of the 4.1 million people living in the islands, 70,000 would be rendered homeless by 2020. Currently, most of the displaced people from two already submerged and six shrinking islands have been heading for Pathar Pratima island and Sagar island.
Helping Environmental Refugees
Until now, Finland and Sweden are the only countries that include “environmental migrants” as “persons otherwise in need of protection” in their official state immigration and asylum policy. Both recognise “environmental migrants” as a category of individuals who are “unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster” and offer protection. Although Denmark does not refer to environmental migrants in its official asylum policy, it adopted a pragmatic approach. It grants, on discretionary grounds, asylum to single women and families with young children from areas where living conditions are considered to be very difficult because of famine and drought. In relation to sudden natural disasters some exceptions do exist.
The US, Canada and the European Union (EU) for instance do give temporary asylum to those people that are affected. Regarding the EU, none of their instruments makes mention of environmental refugees or migrants as yet. Nevertheless, the pressure of recognising them is growing. An American initiative, worthy of note, is the Program to Relocate and Assist Environmental Refugees (PRAER). It seeks to promote awareness about environmental refugees and petitions the UNHCR and the industrialised nations to recognise the legal status of those displaced by climate change by giving them asylum as refugees. Its website also offers an option to sign a petition which is addressed to the President of the United States and to the President of the United Nations.
Other initiatives include the Environmental Justice Foundation, Towards Recognition or Forced Migrations. In October 2009, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held a very special cabinet meeting. In a blue-green lagoon, about five metres underwater, he drew attention to the threat of global warming to his beautiful, low-lying Indian Ocean state at risk of becoming swamped. Communicating with boards and hand signals, his cabinet signed a document calling for global cuts in carbon emissions. “We are going to die,” he expressed at a later press conference.
Authors: Gabriele Mante & Mattias Kolstrup/ RESET editorial. Last update: August 2014.