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Hidden statistics: environmental refugees

"Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand, and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other. But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe."
Dr. Astrid Heiberg

As a term, ‘Environmental Refugees’ is pretty much self-explanatory, describing populations obliged to leave their established homelands for reasons of environmental destruction, such as floods, desertification, deforestation or nuclear plant accidents.

Much harder to understand is the fact that, to this day, such refugees are not even officially recognised within the narrow parameters of current international law. Even in the eyes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which distinguishes between ‘real’ refugees (persecuted) and ‘merely’ displaced persons.

Article 1 A(2) in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, defines the criteria of being a refugee chiefly as possessing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion.”  Therefore, there is no legal compulsion for its signatory states to acknowledge environmental refugees, nor to offer them protection or asylum. Furthermore, if they do not cross international borders they are not officially ‘refugees’, thus excluding huge numbers of internally displaced people (of which environmental refugees are typical). This worldwide lack of recognition is not only surprisingly ironic given the fact that the term ‘environmental refugees’ was introduced by the UN itself in 1985, (its Environmental Program published the 44-page paper entitled “Environmental Refugees” by the Egyptian Professor Essam El-Hinnawi), but also extremely misleading in that it  implies environmental refugees constitute a mere fraction of the world’s refugee population.
Unfortunately, this is far from being the case.

The UNHCR recognises approximately 18 million political, religious or ethnic refugees in the world today. In comparison, there are officially ‘only’ 10 million environmental refugees worldwide. However, since many governments take little account of this ‘unconventional’ category of refugees, the figure of 10 million is considered a gross under-estimate by researchers in this field (such as the WorldWatch Institute, Climate Institute, TERI, and most notably the book “Environmental Exodus: an emergent Crisis in the Global arena”, by Drs. Norman Mayers & Jennifer Kent). In fact, a report issued on June 24th 1999, by the International Red Cross (not exactly a marginal organisation), determined that environmental refugees totalled 25 million - 58% of all refugees - significantly outnumbering those displaced by warfare or persecution. This figure also supported by World Bank figures from 1999.

The Red Cross report also notes that while in 1992 they assisted less than half a million people with natural disasters, 6 years later that figure went up to more than five and a half million, indicating an extremely sharp rise in both environmental disasters and environmental refugees. On February 19th 2001, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which advises the world’s governments under the auspices of the UN, estimated that 150 million environmental refugees will exist in the year 2050, due mainly to the effects of coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural disruption. (150 million means 1.5 percent of 2050’s predicted 10 billion world population.)

The developing world and the poor in general suffer the most from this climate change, since they have fewer options for responding to weather-triggered disasters, and are more heavily dependant on agriculture, which is the most vulnerable sector to climate change. They have, by definition, fewer resources to move, rebuild, find new jobs and to protect their health. These environmental refugees are ecological indicators of humanity’s failure to be at peace, not only with the earth, but with itself as well. They expose the existence of a racist, neo-colonialist system of resources management. The poorest people do not contribute to the problem of climate change to a substantial degree nor do they benefit financially from it, but they pay the highest price and are most vulnerable to its effects. More than 90% of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries. The fossil fuel industry - coal, oil and gas - is not only the main factor in climate change, but also a prime example of the racism and social injustice of this system in which the poor – both in the North and in the South – suffer the consequences of the lifestyle demanded by the industrialised nations in the West.

Although good intentioned, most proposals discussed by NGOs, the UN or particular governments concerning environmental refugees lack a thorough analysis of the problem. De-contextualized from its socio-economic origins, it conveniently reappears in the shape of a safe, ‘humanitarian’ issue, in which the cause is vague and faceless. At times it is simply “nature’s fault”, conveniently bypassing the fact that one-hundred years of Western industrial pollution, carbon emissions and the general abuse and misuse of natural resources play the leading role in the climate changes which create environmental refugees. And where nature is not being blamed, the perpetrator seems to be an ever-abstract, unified ‘humanity’, conveniently forgetting that the effects of climate change are not felt equally in ‘first’ and ‘third’ world countries.  Additionally the ownership of the industries which cause and/or aggravate these effects is not evenly distributed between them.

Experts and Bureaucrats sustain that the main difficulty in tackling the issue is “melding environmental policies capable of confronting today’s harsh realities with a social program capable of addressing the refugee population growth”. Historically there has been no integration of these two unrelated areas of concern. However, beyond this semi-obstacle lies the real one: an age-old Eurocentric tradition of colonialism, exploitation and greed. As Western corporations and organisations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, continue to operate or finance environmentally destructive industries in developing nations for their own profit; as Western-controlled international organisations such as NATO or the WTO, continue to enforce neo-liberal, “free trade” and “New World Order” agendas; as Western-backed dictatorial puppet regimes or armed rebels carry out genocides and civil-wars in ‘third’ world countries; the rich countries responsible for all this adopt tougher and stricter policies on immigration. Adding insult to injury, the millions of impoverished victims created directly by US and European countries’ environmental, economical & political practices cannot attempt to escape their misery by crossing the borders into the refuge of our ‘first’ world ivory tower. 

The real problem is in elaborating - not to mention implementing - a competent policy. All we can expect from Eurocentric organisations are programs which combat the symptoms at the expense of striking the problem at its root, because this would mean admitting to and giving up the privileges environmental racism entails for the West. It should also be noted that even these kinds of programs are diminishing, as emergency aid funds have actually dropped (40% in 5 years, claimed the Red Cross in 1999), and many insurance or reinsurance companies simply refuse to provide coverage in areas struck by environmental disasters. 

As for the future, even that very basic first step of actually recognising environmental refugees seems distant, especially if Bush’s rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is any indication of global policies to come. Sadly, the UN’s anachronistic definition of a “refugee”, elaborated right after World War II’s mass displacement of Europeans, does not seem likely to be updated or extended anytime soon by its lethargic bureaucrats.

The only good news is that we don’t have to wait for laws or official recognitions to make a difference. We, the privileged kids within this cradle of affluence, can be part of the solution precisely because we are part of the problem (as opposed to that old saying...). By learning to expose and peel off the various layers of our personal, everyday cooperation with the world’s exploiters in our high streets, we reduce the number of moving parts in the death-machine, and lay the foundations for the social & political movements which will ultimately build, maintain and become the alternatives to commodity Capitalism, its human misery and its inherent ecocidal drive.

International Red Cross Federation, "World disasters Report 1999", Switzerland, June 1999.
Leiderman Stuart M., "Discovering the "New World" of Environmental refugees", institute for Global Futures Research, July 1999.
Leiderman Stuart M., "Environmental refugees And Ecological Restoration", Environmental Response/4th World Project, June 1999.
McGirk Tim, "Environmental Refugees", Time Magazine, May 17, 2001.
Stranks Robert T., "Environmental Refugees?", Economic and trade analysis (EET), Jan. 1997.
The Gallon Environment Letter, "More Refugees Flee from Environment than from Warfare", vol 3, Nr. 21, July 1999.
Hatrick Karla, "Flight from the Environment: A New Category of refugees?", University of Nottingham, Feb. 1997
Swain Janet, "On Environmental refugees", Global Futures Bulletin #87, July 1999.
Fell Nolan, "Outcasts From Eden", New Scientist (UK), 151, Aug. 1996.
Myers Norman, "Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World", BioScience, v. 43 (11), Dec. 1993.
Myers Norman, "Environmental refugees: A Crisis in the Making", People & The Planet, vol. 3, 1994.
J. Jacobson, "Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability", WorldWatch Paper No. 86, 1998.
T. Minger, ed., "Greenhouse Glasnost: The Crisis of Global Warming", The Ecco Press, 1990.
Lee Shin-wha, "In limbo: Environmental refugees in the Third World", NATO Advanced Workshop on the Environment and Conflict, June 1996.
("Environmental refugees and Ecological Restoration" Website)

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