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Environmental Refugees

Over the centuries, war, political crisis, and geopolitical factors have forced people to flee their homes and seek refuge across borders. However, in the last few years, environmental problems like droughts, floods, and volcanic activity are forcing people to seek shelter in other countries. Such an exodus is referred to as environmental migration and the populace as environmental refugees or climate migrants.

People fleeing floods
People fleeing floods in Sri Lanka

The term ‘environmental refugees’ is said to have been coined in by Essam al-Hinnawi in a United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) publication of the same name, wherein, he describes the phenomenon as those persons who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, either temporarily or permanently, “because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected their quality of life.”

The concept has got worldwide attention as environmental disasters like global warming and desertification are forcing people to leave their livelihoods and start life afresh on foreign lands.

In his definition, El-Hinnawi refers to physical disruption as any chemical or physical change in the ecosystem which renders the area’s environment unfit for human survival.

Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent in their research paper ‘Environmental Refugees: A growing phenomenon for 21st century’ have described the term as “persons who no longer gain secure livelihoods in their traditional homelands because of what are primarily environmental factors of unusual scope.”

The cause: Experts have named three main reasons that have contributed to the rise of environmental refugees, which are as follows:

Extreme events like natural disasters or industrial incidents: Such extreme events include natural calamities and industrial accidents like Gujarat earthquake of 2001 or the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Once the disruption is over, the displaced populace can resume living as before.

Planned or unplanned rehabilitation because of developmental work: The second category of environmental refugees is created when developmental work leads to permanent rehabilitation or resettlement of people in cases of problems like desertification. They need to be rehabilitated because of the permanent changes made by the disruption.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 rendered the erstwhile Soviet Union city unfit for human inhabitation after an explosion in a nuclear reactor.

Inability to maintain life due to lack of resources like starvation or malnutrition: The third category of environmental refugees include people who had to move out their homes mainly because their surroundings cannot support them financially.

Myers has predicted that the number of environmental refugees in the world could rise up to 150 million by 2050. The exodus forced by environmental disasters adds to the pressure faced by countries and governments to provide for a teeming population.

While a lot has been written about the humanitarian side of the issue, the conflict between environmental refugees and climate has a far-reaching impact on the environment. Such effects include over-exploitation vegetation which in turn leads to erosion of soil, deforestation to clear land for building shelters, lower resistance to diseases between the host country and the refugees, pollution of soil and water and depletion of ‘reserve lands’ set aside by the host country for periods of drought.

In a 1991 report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) observed that several times several hundreds of environmental refugees live in camps. The cause of environmental degradation resulting out of a refugee crisis is similar to the one witnessed in normal societies of similar size.

The effects are compounded due to factors like the fact most refugee camps are situated in environmentally-fragile areas, population densities, limited resources and lack of infrastructure.

As countries try to deal with the environmental refugee crisis, analysts have pointed out that policy initiatives are the need of the hour.

To make amends, countries should start with admitting the problem and granting official recognition to climate migrants.

Time and again, the world is reminded of the impending doom wherein environmental crisis threaten to dislodge man-made settlements, unleashing destruction. Take the case of Kiribati, the Pacific nation whose existence is threatened by an alarming rise sea level.

The Pacific nation, which is comprised of 33 small islands, lies halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Experts point that small islands along the Pacific Ocean are the most vulnerable to climate change and Kiribati is no different.

The sea level is rising 50% fasters than it was over 20 years ago in the island nation. It has an average level of just six feet above sea level.

The rise in carbon emissions has led to a rise in sea level in the area forcing people to consider relocation, apparently over fears of the island being unfit to sustain human life.

What next: Talking about ways to preempt migration due to environmental factors, it has been pointed out that sustainable development serves as a tool to bridge the gap between migrants’ needs. After all, it is the lack of reliable access to water, air, resources or food which triggers most climate crisis.

Another way to contain the crisis would better targeting of foreign aid. What’s worse is that the top 10 developing nations where two-thirds of the world’s poor barely get one-third of the foreign aid. As Myers points out that despite being home to world’s 27% poor, India receives just 5% of foreign aid.

As the problem of climate migrants assumes larger proportions, it is not the time to live in denial about the magnanimity of the problem. Countries need to channel their resources to stem the crisis through sustainable policies.


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