World Urged to Prepare Now for 50 Million Environmental Refugees

BONN, Germany, October 11, 2005 (ENS) - Within the next five years, as many as 50 million people will be environmental refugees, on the move to escape the effects of creeping environmental deterioration, according to United Nations University experts.

In a statement released to mark UN Day for Disaster Reduction on Wednesday, the UNUís Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn says problems such as sea level rise, expanding deserts, and flooding induced by catastrophic weather events have already contributed to large permanent migrations and "could eventually displace hundreds of millions" of people.

"There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena," says UNU-EHS Director Janos Bogardi.

"This new category of refugee needs to find a place in international agreements," Dr. Bogardi said. "We need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations."

Victims of sudden catastrophes that attract much publicity, such as the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the recent U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes, benefit from the mobilization of private and public sector generosity and humanitarian relief.


About half the 6,000 inhabitants of this Thai fishing village were killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami, and most of the survivors fled the area. (Photo by F. Stroebel courtesy UNDP)
But Dr. Bogardi points out that millions of others around the world are uprooted by gradual environmental change. They receive comparatively little support to cope and adapt and are not recognized as refugees with the access to aid that classification carries.

Unlike victims of political upheaval or violence, who have access through governments and international organizations to financial grants, food, tools, shelter, schools and clinics, environmental refugees are not yet recognized in world conventions.

The UNU says 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.

The UNU cites research by the International Federation of Red Cross that shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

In 2004, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees defined "persons of concern" to include refugees - people who have fled persecution in their own countries to seek safety in neighboring states, of which there are 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.

UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, rector of UNU, says, "This is a highly complex issue, with global organizations already overwhelmed by the demands of conventionally recognized refugees, as originally defined in 1951. We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of refugee within international frameworks."

Environmental refugees must be distinguished from economic migrants, who depart voluntarily to find a better life but may return home without persecution, Professor van Ginkel says.


In September 2004, floods and mudslides caused by tropical storm Jeanne devastated Haiti's northern coastal town of GonaÔves. Haitians are continually intercepted attempting to reach the United States, some fleeing conflict and others fleeing environmental degradation. (Photo by Anne Poulson courtesy WFP)
Dr. Bogardi notes that the term "environmental refugee" rankles many experts as simplistic, masking what are often compound motives behind migration and implicitly laying the blame on nature when often the policies and practices of people are the cause of displacement.

UNU-EHS is working to establish an internationally-agreed glossary of terms to facilitate cooperation in the broad area of environment and human security.

Most such displaced people today migrate within their own countries, the UNU experts note. International agreement about a nationís duty to protect and support internal migrants fleeing catastrophic events or environmental degradation is needed, they say.

That duty is implied in the agreement produced by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan in January 2005, and international guidelines on internal displacement have been promoted.

Still, statesí obligations need to be formalized, says Dr. Bogardi.

The statement coincides with the announcement of a new chair on social vulnerability at UNU-EHS, funded by a charitable foundation of the global reinsurance company Munich Re. Among the areas of study will be migrations forced by slow moving catastrophes, including desertification, diminishing safe water supplies and sea level rise brought on by climate change.

Florida professor Tony Oliver-Smith is a UNU-EHS Munich Re Foundation chair holder designate for 2007-08, whose work will include study of the recent exodus from New Orleans and other environment-related migrations.


At Erath, Louisiana, rescuers guide a boat through Hurricane Rita floodwaters with evacuees from the storm. The lower areas of south-central Louisiana were flooded by waters up to three feet deep, which eroded the coastlines. September 25, 2005. (Photo by Win Henderson courtesy FEMA)
He notes that in the United States, Louisiana now loses to the sea roughly 65 square kilometers (25 square miles) per year, while in Alaska 213 communities are threatened by tides that creep roughly three meters (10 feet) further inland each year.

"Around the world vulnerability is on the increase due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas," says Dr. Oliver-Smith. "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," says Oliver-Smith, "with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration."

In some instances the migration is planned for in advance. The low-lying Pacific island country of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with New Zealand to accept its 11,600 citizens in the event rising sea levels swamp the country.

By one rough estimate, as many as 100 million people worldwide live in areas below sea level and are subject to storm surge, the UNU says.

Environment-related migration has been most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also affects millions of people in Asia and India. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are witnessing increasing pressure from victims of often mismanaged and deteriorating soil and water conditions in North Africa and Latin America.

Such migrations may grow dramatically in future, the UNU says.

Among many problem sites, Sana'a, Yemenís capital, has doubled its population on average every six years since 1972 and now stands at 900,000 people. The aquifer on which the city depends is falling by six meters (20 feet) a year, and may be exhausted by 2010, according to the World Bank.

In China, the Gobi desert expands more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) per year, threatening many villages.

Oxford-based expert Norman Myers says Morocco, Tunisia and Libya each lose over 1,000 square kilometres of productive land a year to desertification. In Egypt, half of irrigated croplands suffer from salinization while in Turkey 160,000 square kilometers of farmlands is affected by soil erosion.

"The questions that surround environment-related migration deserve forethought and deliberation now as more difficult circumstances for policymakers almost certainly lie ahead," says UNU-EHS associate and advisor Ben Wisner. "Much of humanity faces major threats with enormous knock-on effects at the regional, national, and international levels."

Dr. Wisner says initiatives to recognize and relieve the plight of displaced people must not let national governments "off the hook for their failure to help prevent land degradation and facilitate land restoration and, in some cases, for their collusion with owners of forest companies, open mines, and large cattle ranches in practices that degrade land."