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Environmental Refugees

envirorefugee.jpgWould you know an environmental refugee if you saw one?

As a recent spate of natural disasters ably demonstrates, thousands of people can be driven from their homes with no place to go other than away from the devastation, and global climate disruption promises to make evacuation for environmental reasons a more frequent occurrence. The United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security is now looking at the issue of environmental refugees, and how best to recognize and support them (PDF). One of the big questions is precisely how to define "environmental refugee."

The UNU says that, by 2010, the world will have as many as 50 million people driven from their homes by environmental crises:

...the number of people forced to move by environment-related conditions already approximates and may someday dwarf the number of officially-recognized “persons of concern,” recently calculated at 19.2 million [UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2004 “persons of concern” include “refugees” (people who have fled persecution in their own countries to seek safety in neighboring states, 9.2 million), civilians who have returned home but still need help, civilians uprooted by violence but who remain within their own countries, asylum seekers and stateless people.]. Indeed, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

(Emphasis mine.) But big disasters, while too common by any definition, aren't the major manifestation of large scale environmental problems. Over the coming decades, we're more likely to see people abandoning their homes due to drought, or famine, or disease, or sea level rise -- the so-called "slow motion disasters." Alex gave a particularly vivid account of what this looks like, right now, in China, with millions being uprooted by growing desertification.

Moreover, there's the compounding problem that what may appear to be an environmental driver for migration may be just one of many motives, including economic, political and even policy-related triggers. Economist Matthew Kahn, of the Environmental and Urban Economics blog, puts it this way:

...there is a synergy between policies and environmental shocks. If the levees had been in better shape (a policy), the same natural shock (Katrina) would have caused less damage to New Orleans and there would have been much fewer environmental refugees.

Experts working in this field will face the challenge of disentangling whether observed migration flows are due to economic arbitrage (seeking out higher $ in destination cities) or because environmental shocks push people away from places they wanted to keep living in.

Nicole Boyer explored this very issue in her "Refugees in America" essay written in the days following Katrina.

This is where the definition of "environmental refugee" gets tricky: the choice of whether to stay or go when faced with slow-motion environmental disasters is in many ways an economic decision.

Were "Dust Bowl" migrants in the US in the 1930s environmental refugees? It's certainly arguable, but many left their homes after deciding that they could make better lives for themselves elsewhere, or because they had run out of money as their farms grew barren. The difference between an environmental and an economic refugee is important; in the modern global political system, economic migrants are treated very differently from other kinds of refugees. If a long-lasting climate crisis hurts the global economy, you can bet that most places will be all the more aggressive about keeping economic refugees out.

Further compounding the complexity of the issue is the relationship between megacity growth and environmental vulnerability. When urban populations grow faster than the urban infrastructure, residents become acutely vulnerable to the effects of both slow-motion disaster and climate shock events. And, as the impact of hurricane Katrina would suggest, economic privation can make environmental stresses all the worse.

“Around the world vulnerability is on the increase due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas,” says Dr. Oliver-Smith [Tony Oliver-Smith holds a chair at the UNU-EHS Munich Re Foundation]. “Many cities are overwhelmed, incapable of handling with any degree of effectiveness the demands of a burgeoning number of people, many of whom take up shelter in flimsy shanties.

“Combine this trend with rising sea levels and the growing number and intensity of storms and it is the recipe for a disaster-in-waiting, with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration.”

The question of how to define an "environmental refugee" may seem academic. After all, whether driven by storm, famine or war, the lives of refugees is usually miserable, and the way we respond to refugee crises is in desperate need of reform. But it's important to have a clear definition of environmental refugee for a couple of reasons: the first is that, those seeking to deny them assistance will tend to dismiss legitimate environmental refugees as "economic migrants," coming not because they've been driven from their homes but simply to seek greater income -- having a clear definition of what constitutes an environmental refugee will make that argument much more difficult; the second is that, putting together a robust definition of "environmental refugee" is part of a larger campaign to push climate and environmental issues to the forefront of public perception -- giving it a status similar to war or genocide as something we must do whatever we can to prevent and, when necessary, to aid it afflicts.

Comments (2)


Um arnt alot of refugees in africa realy environmental refugees already?

Adam Burke:

Seems to me that unless your house is actually underwater, economic and environmental refugees are almost indistinguishable, at least in an agrarian economy. When crops fail for several years in a row, it tends to impact revenue. I suspect any definition that tries to split the difference will be all too easy for governments to evade.

I'm also reminded that historically, a run of bad years in the pastures of north-east Asia would send a wave of migrating nomads west and south. If we don't find flexible ways of dealing with large numbers of climate migrants - indeed redirecting their momentum towards building new lives - we might find ourselves negotiating with Chinggis Khan instead.


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