Environmental Migrants: What do you do when no one can agree on what you are?

Copyright 2010, Jessica Keralis

One might think that refugees’ lives are already complicated enough as it is. The simple necessities of putting a roof over your head and food on your table are daunting, not to mention the bureaucratic process of making sure you are doing it all legally in whatever country you are trying to settle. But when a person is displaced by a controversial phenomenon which some cannot even agree exists, putting down new roots inevitably becomes infinitely more convoluted.

Climate refugees, or those displaced by natural disasters or other environmental phenomena that many attribute to climate change, are only now beginning to receive widespread international attention. The earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan have contributed significantly to this increased awareness. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to agree on how to deal with them, where to send them, or even what to call them: some organizations prefer the term “environmental migrants,” while the UN has used the term “environmentally induced migrants.” “Climate refugee,” while popular in the media, is a highly controversial term: UNHCR has expressed concern that referring to these migrants as “refugees” might lessen protection for conventional political refugees that have legal rights to assistance. While political refugees (obviously) cannot go to their governments for assistance, many environmental migrants can. Others argue that times have changed and that environmental migrants should be classified as refugees in order to receive legal and material assistance. The debate rages on.

Regardless of what they are called, millions currently suffer some form of environment or climate-influenced displacement. At the Copenhagen summit last year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that 36 million were displaced due to natural disasters in 2008, 20 million of whom were forced to move due to climate change-related factors. The UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security estimates that there are nearly 50 million environmental refugees in the world today, though this estimate is somewhat controversial. Recent examples of large-scale environmental migration include the 1.5 million displaced in Haiti and the seven million driven from their homes by flooding in Pakistan. Other groups are forced to move due to slower or smaller-scale environmental degradation, such as desertification in north-central Africa and regular flooding in Bangladesh. Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Vanuatu are slowly disappearing under rising sea levels. Oftentimes these slow environmental changes can trigger or exacerbate conflict by increasing conflict for resources.

The upcoming talks in Cancún highlight the sense of urgency surrounding this issue. However, many commentators are skeptical that any meaningful progress will be made, considering how poorly negotiations went during the Copenhagen summit. Additionally, a recent study by the UN Environmental Programme has established that even if all countries followed through with their commitments in the Copenhagen accord, CO2 emissions would not be sufficiently reduced to halt the rise in global average temperatures to two degrees Celsius, which is regarded as the “danger threshold.” While some hope for an eventual legally-binding agreement between countries, others are crafting their own solutions. In Bangladesh, for example, a non-profit organization called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (a name meaning “self-reliance”) designs boats to house schools, libraries, and climate shelters. In Pakistan, communities are determined to get back on their feet, with or without international assistance. “We appreciate all the outside help, including seeds being supplied by the US, but the [we] are proud people and we are determined to help ourselves.”

Jessica Keralis is a public health specialist with an active interest in international health and refugee issues. She is the Communications Committee chair for the International Health section of the American Public Health Association. She blogs for the IH section and can be followed on Twitter here.

<< Back