According to the United Nations’ definition from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In 1967 Protocol the definition of a refugee was expanded to include persons who had fled war or other violence. At present the United Nations does not formally provide long-term legal protection to refugees due to environmental factors and climate change.
A climate refugee is a person displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters like droughts, desertification, sea level rise, as well as extreme weather events like hurricanes, cyclones, fires, and tornadoes.
The International Organisation for Migration proposes the following definition for environmental migrants:
“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
The International Organization for Migration formulated a working definition which encompasses the complexity of the topic. This working definition recognizes that:
“Environmental migrants are not only those displaced by the environmental event but also those who migration is triggered by deteriorating environmental conditions
Environmentally induced movement can take place within as well as across international borders;
It can be both long and short term; and
Population movements triggered by environmental forces can be forced as well as a matter of choice.”
The term “environmental refugee” was first proposed by Lester Brown in 1976. More recently these environmental migrants have been called “climate change refugees” or simply “climate refugee.” They are also known as “environmentally displaced person (EDP)”, “disaster refugee”, “environmental displacee”, “eco-refugee”, “ecologically displaced person” and “environmental-refugee-to-be (ERTB).” While there are differences between these terms, they all share the view that there is a relationship between environmental factors and human migration.
In 1988, Jodi Jacobson’s research indicated that that there were already up to 10 million environmental refugees. According to Jacobson, when sea level rise is factored into the equation climate refugees will be six times as numerous as political refugees. One year later (1989), Mustafa Tolba, Executive Director of UNEP, claimed that as many as “50 million people could become environmental refugees” if the world did not act to support sustainable development. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 1990: 20) declared that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be migration, “with millions of people displaced”.
In the mid-1990s, British environmentalist, Norman Myers noted that “environmental refugees will soon become the largest group of involuntary refugees”. Additionally, he stated that there were 25 million environmental refugees in the mid-1990s, further claiming that this figure could double by 2010, with an upper limit of 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1997). More recently, Myers has suggested that the figure by 2050 might be as high as 250 million,
Other research has corroborated the claims that between 150-250 million people will be climate change refugees by 2050 including IPCC (Brown 2008: 11), and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern et al. 2006: 3), as well as by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace Germany (Jakobeit and Methmann 2007) and inter-governmental organizations such as the Council of Europe, NESCO, OM (Brown 2008) and UNHCR. The Refugee Council of Australia has urged the world to prepare for the influx of people due to climate change.
While there is some dispute about the exact number of climate refugees we can expect, it is clear that even conservative estimates will produce significant deleterious affects from vast numbers of these new categories of migrants. Despite diverging estimates, it is widely understood that mass global migrations due to environmental causes will auger a host of ancillary problems including wars over scarce resources and border conflicts. We need to begin preparing for mass environmental migrations now and this effort starts by formally recognizing climate refugees.
© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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