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Environmental Refugees


By 2050, climate change and environmental degradation could create 150 million environmental refugees. As Mark Townsend reports, it is a problem which the UN
and Western governments are doing their best to ignore.

Marat Fomenko casts one final gaze over the bleak landscape. It is littered with fragments of abandoned machinery and the rusted hulks of disused ships.

Across the plain is Kazakhstan’s once-famous fishing port of Aralsk, and, beyond that, a huge, dried rubbish-strewn sand pit.

It has been 25 years since Marat could see the receding Aral Sea – once the lifeblood of the region and the fourth biggest lake in the world – from his home.

The former fisherman motions to his wife Malika and their kids. The bags are packed. It is time to finally escape.
Marat’s livelihood literally drained away from the moment the rivers that fed the Aral Sea were diverted to irrigate the pesticide-soaked cotton fields upstream in Uzbekistan.

The Fomenko family are heading to the Kazakh capital of Astana, joining the throng in search of a better life. They will never return to their dying homeland, the vanishing sea of which has triggered ecological disaster and a 30-fold increase in disease.

His son has contracted tuberculosis and Marat hopes the city will offer improved facilities.

Hope is all the Fomenko family have. They and 25 million others worldwide who have been forced to forever abandon their lands through a complex myriad of causes involving flooding, drought, soil erosion, deforestation, earthquakes, nuclear accidents and toxic spills.

These are the planet’s environmental refugees. You may not have heard of them. Certainly, they are ignored by the world’s politicians. And yet, experts argue, this rapidly swelling band of disparate, disenfranchised and displaced families constitutes one of the biggest crises facing humankind.

They are a huge, forgotten army of people whose numbers, according to conservative estimates, soar by 5,000 a day. Yet they are shunned by the international community, whose policies ensure they are deprived of not only basic rights, but actual recognition.

All corners of the globe are affected. There are vast swathes of land where the environment has become so degraded it can no longer support life. Each region of the world experiences its own specific agonies.

Just over 4,000 miles south of the shrinking Aral, Big Business is playing its part in this unfolding catastrophe.
Deep in Nigeria’s Niger Delta lies the deserted home of Karalolo Atu.

Three years ago Karalolo was forced from her ancestral kingdom of Ogoniland, and, along with thousands of others, she fled to the nearby settlement of Port Harcourt.

Quite simply Karalolo’s local environment had collapsed. An alliance between oil giant Shell and corrupt, violent regimes had fuelled a complete breakdown of the fragile delta ecosystem.

Shell’s unswerving search for fresh oil reserves had led to hundreds of oil spills. Water systems and soil were left heavily polluted, and precious farmland was rendered unusable.

Mother of four Karalolo cannot contemplate going back to her ruined homeland. Although millions of environmental refugees are displaced within the same country, the vast majority never return home because in most cases nothing is or can be done to reverse the damage.

Climate change
But the growing nightmare that will transform the surge of environmental refugees into a problem of unimaginable dimensions is, unquestionably, climate change.

Just ask farmer Paani Talake from the tiny island state of Tuvalu in the South Pacific. His thatched family home is literally going down in history.

Whereas Marat’s problem is a shrinking sea, Paani’s is altogether different. For the latter there will soon be nothing left but sea.

Already the lowland coconut plantation farmlands of Tuvalu are being swamped by the rising sea. Nearby islets have vanished forever, while the invisible creep of saltwater contaminates precious drinking supplies and stunts crop growth. Next year Paani and his young family will abandon their homeland and take advantage of a gracious offer of a new start from the government of New Zealand.
Paani has little choice. Within as little as 50 years Tuvalu is projected to slide beneath the encroaching waters – a high-profile victim of the industrial excesses of the West. All that will be left of Tuvalu will be its status as a graphic footnote to mankind’s folly in experimenting with the atmosphere.

But what of the millions of others in low-lying countries who may soon join the flow of environmental refugees? Where will they be offered a new start?

Under official predictions, their islands and coastlines will soon start sliding into the rising tide as climate change propels the planet into a new stratosphere of catastrophe. Ever greater numbers will be forced to scratch harder for a living on less and less land – land which is already struggling to sustain current demands.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s forecast of a one-metre sea-level rise this century poses one of the largest dilemmas yet to face the human race. The prospect is particularly bleak given the fact that half the planet’s people are already crowded into coastal zones. Some 10 million of these people are at constant risk of flooding.

In Bangladesh alone a one-metre rise would uproot 20 million people. Then there are the vast rice-growing river floodplains of Thailand, Indonesia and India, among others.

Even the rich world must pay a price. There are devastating implications for nations such as Holland and Denmark, with the possibility of huge population shifts and waves of environmental refugees moving onto already cramped lands.

Such massive migration will be accompanied by the stench of sickness. Mosquito-borne diseases are expected to increase 100-fold in temperate regions. Malaria has already quadrupled in the last five years.

Incredibly, politicians have chosen to ignore the impending crisis, refusing to accept the likes of Paani, Marat and Karalolo are the refugees they most unequivocally are.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), established in 1950 in response to the mass-displacement of Europeans in WWII, has conspicuously failed to-address the problem. The UNHCR refuses to update its legal framework in line with the planet’s rapidly deteriorating environment.

As for a tangible solution, forget it.Instead the agency clings onto the politically narrow, outdated definition of refugees, which stipulates that people should only be considered as such if their flight is due to ‘a well-founded fear of persecution’ on grounds such as race and religion.

But doesn’t an environment which has become so degraded that it no longer offers the basic building blocks of life – namely, food and water – persecute?

The upshot is that at least 25 million refugees (though the true total is likely to be far higher) are not afforded basic rights.

These people’s plight was similarly glossed over by the UK’s Refugee Week in June. Refugee Week preferred to concentrate on Britain’s asylum seekers. It overlooked figures from the Red Cross which show that more than half – 58 per cent – of the world’s 43 million refugees are in fact environmentally displaced. In other words, almost one in every 250 persons on our planet.

All future trends point to an acute escalation of environmentally-driven human migration. Dr Norman Myers, a visiting fellow at Oxford University, believes that climate change and environmental degradation will create 150 million environmental refugees by 2050.

Klaus Topfer, chief executive of the United Nations Environment Programme, says that the swollen ranks of environmental refugees could double to 50 million in just eight years time. That is an increase of 8,500 a day.
But even Topfer may as well be whispering in the wind.

The politics of environmental refugees. Asylum is a topic that carries the power to make and brake politicians. Just
look at the improbable success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

But despite asylum issues dominating both the media and politics, the actual role of the world’s degraded environment as a factor in human migration is being conveniently ignored. Thus politicians and media magnates can continue labelling environmental refugees as ‘bogus’.

So, refugee policy is concocted in seeming oblivion to the problem of environmental refugees, and Western governments are allowed to act as if 10s of millions of legitimate migrants do not exist.

That is why the British Home Secretary David Blunkett’s recently-published White Paper on immigration and asylum failed to concern itself with environmental refugees. Blunkett preferred to pander to the whims of Fortress Europe instead. A mature analysis into why people are migrating in the first place never takes place.

It is almost as if the unfolding problem is too big to comprehend. It is easier and cheaper to ditch the
3,500-year-old tradition of affording succour to refuges, and to systematically deny the likes of the Fomenko family the right to a better life.

Wendy Williams, population movement advisor for the International Red Cross, is under no illusion that politicians are purposefully avoiding the repercussions of environmental collapse in order to keep numbers of ‘legitimate’ refugees down.

‘If politicians relaxed migrations laws,’ Williams says, ‘it would probably be their death knell. We need to raise awareness that these people simply cannot survive off the land anymore, and that they don’t want to leave their homes in the first place.’

For all the bluster, Britain’s ‘refugee crisis’ remains piffling compared to the size of the true environmental problem. If global trends for environmental refugees were applied to the UK, there would be around 250,000 people – the equivalent of the population of Sunderland – thus affected in this country. That is three times the record number of asylum applicants for a single year in Britain.

Green MEP for London Jean Lambert is one of the few politicians in the West who admits to being intensely worried about the problem. In May she unveiled a detailed report into the environmental refugee crisis. The report outlined her concerns that a serious debate has yet to commence on the unfolding crisis.

Lambert is flabbergasted that the issue of finding new homes for 10s of millions of people in the near future is not even worthy of peripheral concern.

Just how low a priority the issue is can be illustrated by the fact that the annual budget of the UNHCR is a mere £843m. That is less than the military expenditures of world governments in a single day. It is arguably barely enough to cope with the demands of conventionally ‘persecuted’ migrants.

Of the UNHCR money, a fraction so tiny it cannot be easily broken down is offered to environmental refugees. There are no publicised plans to increase help to these migrants, even though they constitute the majority of the world’s displaced. The British government alone spends almost the same amount – £835m – handling asylum seekers in this country.

The irony is that the developing world continues to be hit hardest by environmental degradation and human-driven climate change. That suffering seems to be in direct disproportion to the developing world’s responsibility for climate change. After all, the US alone spews out 25 per cent of greenhouse gases on behalf of just four per cent of the world’s population.

From the terrorised perspective of the Paani family’s thatched roof, the US’s refusal to cooperate with the Kyoto Protocol must seem grotesquely indifferent to say the least.

Driven from their land
Even when climate change is removed from the frame the picture remains grim. Soaring population growth and devastated, exhausted environments are creating immense suffering and massive migration on their own.

A whistle-stop tour of the world makes disquieting reading.
Mexico, the Ivory Coast and the Phillipines could all lose the bulk of their forests within half a lifetime. In the same short timescale Ethiopia, El Salvador and Nepal could lose most of their farmland topsoil.

Globally, one in three people face acute water shortages as water use is expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next 20 years. Many of these people will be forced from their homes to seek clean water supplies elsewhere. Countries like Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan will be particularly affected. India’s breadbasket – the huge agricultural plains of the Punjab – is already more than half eroded.

And almost overnight an abundance of land in countries like Kenya and Costa Rica has been dramatically transformed into acute land shortage through rapid urbanisation.Each of these factors independently could trigger extraordinary numbers of environmental refugees.

And all the time the pressures are growing. In the 15 minutes it takes you to read this article, the world will gain another 2,600 mouths to feed; 97 of every 100 will be born into a country where finances are stretched, food and water is insufficient and where creaking, chaotic cities are groaning under the weight of incoming migrants. These cities are mostly poised on the brink of natural disaster: 40 of the world’s 50 fastest-growing cities are stranded within earthquake zones.

Once again we come back to climate change. Four years ago the world saw the birth of the ‘super-disaster’. For the first time in history more people were being displaced because of environmental reasons than war. A report from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned that the number of people they had helped after major floods, droughts and earthquakes had increased from 500,000 to five and a half million in just six years.

A UN survey estimates that around a third of the world’s total land is in the process of becoming infertile. While massive man-made projects like China’s Three Gorges dam are driving more than one million people from their homes. Other studies predict that 100 million of 135 million people living in areas of desertification will be displaced in the next 20 years.

These are just some of the complex, alarming web of factors powering this new wave of refugees. It is a complexity that will prove taxing for politicians. But, unless they start attempting to solve it, it will store up even greater problems for the future.

Measures need to be introduced to ensure Paani’s fate is not repeated across the world.

Putting the brakes on climate change will only be achieved by reducing greenhouse emissions by 90 per cent (not 10 or 20 per cent) within a decade.

One interesting development that could hold huge ramifications for Western governments is the threat by Paani’s prime minister to take legal action against polluter states for greenhouse gas emissions.

But first we need a definition of refugees that includes those displaced for environmental reasons.

Redefining state responsibility for environmental refugees is another must – a tough choice for leaders who must start reacting to the fact that people are being pushed from their homes and not pulled by the bright lights of the West.

Running out of time
The problem is growing daily. An action plan is needed. Finding new homes for 125 million people in a few decades will test even the most committed.

As its stands the world is not prepared to deal with these implications. It is barely aware of the impending crisis.

Disaster awaits, only a dramatic upsurge in political will can prevent tens of millions of people from experiencing the same desperate fate as the families of Paani, Matra and Karalolon

mark townsend is an award-winning environmental journalist

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