Environmental Migration: A 21st Century issue with no solution

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Environmental migration is one of those new potential threats to national security that the nation’s cannot even predict. It has a long time horizon and it is invisible to the political eye. As global climate change has gained international importance for threatening the livelihoods of millions of people, causing many to leave home in search of new opportunities. Creating refugees as well as internally displaced persons. Environmental refugee as defined by United Nations Environment Program researcher Essam El-Hinnawi, describes “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 jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously effects the quality of their life.” 

Environmental Migration is a rather complex phenomena for the governments and policy-makers to deal with due to the variety of environmental disasters that can have dramatic impacts on the forced migration of people and due to the lack of legal or political architecture. For example in Bangladesh, rising sea-levels and resulting floods have caused many people to flee across the border to India. On the other hand, in the Sudan, droughts have reduced sources of water for consumption and traditional agriculture, leaving many people without sufficient access to food or water and increasing conflict over these resources. 

Natural disasters are differentiated from other disasters because of a significant difference in origin. These disasters include hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes or any other weather or geological event that renders a place previously inhabited by humans unfit for habitation, either permanently or temporarily. A good example of a natural disaster that produced refugees was the 1995–8 eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. These eruptions forced around 7000 residents to evacuate.

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Migration that stems from deterioration of the environment is not planned, even though the disruption of the environment may be quite deliberate. The connections between gradual environmental change and migration are rarely direct. Instead, the effects of deterioration filter through the local economy. The poor are normally most vulnerable to environmental degradation and migration resulting from it. They are more likely to live in marginal ecosystems and make more direct demands on their immediate environments which affects mostly the under-developed and developing nations.

Deterioration also results from the gradual removal of a few components of an ecosystem. As depletion worsens, the people who depend on this resource have to search for some way to compensate. For example, farmers may practice agriculture that depletes soil fertility at a rate that exceeds the ability of the soil to replenish itself. As harvests decline, these farmers must find other ways to produce food or income. Depletions may concern only a single species in a given environment or degradation of the ecosystem as a whole. This process is demonstrated in places where intensive agriculture has expanded into inappropriate environments, such as deserts and tropical rainforests. Particularly in one colonist community in Amazonian Ecuador, people responded to environmental deterioration linked to deforestation with international migration leading to a conundrum shaping upto appear like a refugee crisis.

However, along with such instances of forced migration due to ecological degradation and climate change, there is a glaring legal loophole that prevents enforceable steps from the State machinery. This is evident when Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national, lost his asylum appeal in New Zealand in May 2014 after a case that arguably made him the world’s first-ever “climate change refugee.” He moved there in 2007 with his family, claiming his island home was sinking and becoming too dangerous to live on. His lawyers argued that he was being “persecuted passively by the circumstances in which he’s living, which the Kiribati Government has no ability to ameliorate.” 

New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that while climate change is a major and growing concern for the international community, the phenomenon “and its effect on countries like Kiribati is not appropriately addressed under the 1951 Refugee Convention.” The treaty defines a refugee as a person who “has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” 

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is also a standing invitee to the Nansen Initiative- a State-led conversation on how to protect affected populations, launched in October 2012 by the Governments of Switzerland and Norway, and which aims to build consensus on a protection agenda to address the needs of people displaced across international borders by natural hazards, including the effects of climate change.  

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Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people. Displacement risk increases when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in under-developed and developing countries with low income and also have an indirect impact on increased risk of violent conflicts, such as civil war and inter-group violence. 

The modern world has long thought of refugees in strictly political terms, victims in a world riven by competing ideologies. But as climate change continues unabated, there is a growing population of displaced men, women, and children whose homes have been rendered unlivable thanks to a wide spectrum of environmental disasters. Where the forest used to be, torrential rains bring barren hills of mud down on villages. Crops wither in the parched earth. Animals die. Melting glaciers and a rising sea swallow islands and low-lying nations, flooding rice fields with salt water. Factories spew toxic chemicals into rivers and oceans, killing fish and the livelihood of generations. 

So as people flee, many become internally displaced, others cross borders in order to survive. Experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science had estimated in 2012 that these numbers would reach 50 million by 2020, due to factors such as agricultural disruption, deforestation, coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, industrial accidents and pollution. Whereas others also estimate the figure to triple to 150 million by 2050. It is believed that the population of environmentally displaced has already far outstripped the number of political refugees worldwide, which, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), is currently over 10.2 million. 

In 1999 the International Red Cross reported some 25 million people displaced by environmental disasters. In 2009 the UNHCR estimated that number to be 36 million, 20 million of whom were listed as victims of climate change-related issues. Kiribati, the Maldives, and Tuvalu are disappearing as sea level continues to rise. The World Bank estimates that with a one meter rise in sea level, Bangladesh– with a population of 140 million – would lose 17.5 percent of its land mass. It will also suffer river bank erosion, salinity intrusion, flood, damage to infrastructure, crop failure, destruction of fisheries, and loss of biodiversity. Those who have already fled the country to neighbouring India. China, is also a hot spot of environmental disasters as it buckles under unsustainable development, giving rise to rapid air pollution and toxic rivers. Alongside desertification, these man-made catastrophes have already left millions displaced. 

When erstwhile President Obama granted temporary protected status (TPS) to undocumented Haitians living in the United States in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, it was a step in the right direction. Sadly, such actions are rare and when they do come, they manage to address barely a fraction of the pressing legal and humanitarian needs of the growing population. Policies toward climate refugees should therefore include issues of reforestation, re-habilitating degraded land and soils, and desalination of low coastal areas. And the International Court of Justice should also step up its efforts to prosecute those responsible for man-made environmental disasters such as illegal mining, deforestation, and dumping of toxic waste.

In the autumn of 2018, the UN General Assembly plans to hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration with the goal of adopting a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. This would be the first global agreement to be adopted under the umbrella of the United Nations to deal comprehensively with all aspects of international migration. However, we are still a long way from a complex set of rules and regulations, based on human rights, that protects environmental migrants. This makes it all the more important to continue to look for pragmatic solutions to facilitate migration through the promotion of safe, legal and circular paths to labor migration, through national humanitarian admissions programs and through regional agreements. In view of the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Mediterranean, Europe in particular should be willing to rethink its refugee policies and create safe access routes. In the further development of a common European refugee and migration policy, the walls around Europe should not be raised further. 

The real problem of international migration and refugee policy is not the lack of international statements of intent, but rather the behaviour of key players. As long as the challenge posed by the major transition to a post-fossil economy and society has not been recognised and accepted by everyone, and as long as the corresponding changes in behaviour of all those involved – individuals, groups and states – are not addressed more seriously, the planet will continue to experience natural disasters which do not yet affect some of us, but bring great suffering to the poorest of the poor who are the least to blame for their occurrence. We can simply no longer afford to continue to underestimate and ignore these catastrophic events. 

 

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