The environmental causes and consequences of migration: A search for the meaning of ‘environmental refugees’

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In 1985, El-Hinnawi identified a new class of persons known as ‘environmental refugees’. He defined environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.” This note seeks to understand whether highlighting environmental damage and degradation as a single cause of migration, or as a single consequence of migration, has any benefit. The term ‘environmental refugee’ will be examined from a legal perspective and from an environmental perspective. It will be asked whether the issue of environmental refugees is an environmental problem or a legal problem. The answer, that it is an environmental problem, will account for much of the confusion stemming from the term in international law. Finally, it will be asked whether highlighting environmental refugees, if not of benefit to the displaced persons, is of benefit to the environment.

<< Back