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Nowhere to run from nature

Approximately one third of Bangladesh floods each year during the monsoon, badly affecting development efforts on the ground. UNDP Bangladesh

Norman Myers, a world renowned British environmentalist and authority on biodiversity, forecast more than a decade ago that as the impact of climate change intensified, the number of people fleeing natural disasters could climb to at least 50 million by 2010. Now, as the world grapples with food shortages brought on in part by climate change, he is revising his figures upwards.

Estimates of the number of people likely to be displaced by natural disasters or rising sea levels vary widely, but as fiercer and bigger weather events hit the news headlines daily, the temperature of debates on providing protection to people displaced by the vagaries of nature is rising.

"Many scholars are working on this 'hot topic'," said Jean-Francois Durieux, lecturer in International Human Rights and Refugee Law at Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre, but most of them are struggling to find answers on how to help the displaced.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity, tells us that as global warming melts ice and expands water, several million residents in low-lying areas could be displaced in the next few decades.

Low-lying coastal areas constitute only two percent of the total land surface of the earth, but contain 10 percent of the world’s current population. A policy paper by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security Section (UNU-EHS) noted that about 75 percent of all vulnerable people living in low-lying areas are in Asia.

Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, may lose up to one-fifth of its surface area if the sea level rises by one metre. "If we look at South Asia alone, the melting [glaciers would mean] tens of millions of people will have to leave their livelihoods. Where will they go? How will they impact on the host communities that receive them?" asked Achim Steiner, Executive Secretary of UNEP.

It’s happening now

Natural disasters can lead to permanent migration, as illustrated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, which struck the southern United States in 2005, said Koko Warner, head of Social Vulnerability and Environmental Migration at UNU-EHS.

''It will be a rare occurrence that 'global warming' produces large-scale and sudden displacement across international borders. In most cases, the displacement will be gradual, spread over lengthy periods and possibly involving many 'stopovers', including within the country of origin. This would make a status determination extremely complicated''
The Indian Ocean tsunami displaced more than two million people, many of whom are still living in refugee camps in the region. "The UN Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery estimates that 1.5 million people lost their livelihoods in the aftermath of the tsunami, further complicating resettlement of migrants," said the UNU-EHS policy paper. Hurricane Katrina caused about 1.5 million people to be displaced temporarily, and an estimated 500,000 permanently.

The Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean threatened by rising sea-levels, has played a leading role in trying to create awareness of the issue for the past two decades. In March 2008 the UN Human Rights Council agreed to conduct a study on the effects of climate change on human rights, especially livelihoods.

Maldives hopes the findings will inform the negotiation process between industrialised and developing countries at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Kyoto Protocol) on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a general consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global warming, but none on how, or by how much, to reduce them.

In 2005, 1,000 residents of Carteret atoll in the Papua New Guinea islands, described by the Guardian, a UK daily newspaper, as the "world's first refugees of global warming" had to be evacuated. The sea is slowly drowning the atoll, and the process of relocating 3,000 residents of other islands is still ongoing.

Key questions

For any country to provide protection and a home to people fleeing natural disasters, the displaced need to have legal status. And it is here that policymakers are struggling with several key questions:

- How do you determine whether a person has been displaced by environmental factors?
- How do you define a person displaced by environmental factors?
- What do you call them?
- What kind of protection can be afforded to the person – short-term or long-term?
- Do those affected have to be relocated? Why not help them adapt to their changed environment?
- Who will pay for relocation or adaptation measures? Are the industrialised countries, who have been held responsible for global warming, morally obliged to pay?

Durieux said just about everybody agreed that the current legal definition of a refugee should not be tampered with to accommodate those affected by environmental factors, and in general researchers agree that most countries will accept a new concept and a separate convention on environmental refugees.

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee, sets out the rights of those granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations granting asylum.

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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country," said William Spindler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, quoting from the 1951 convention.

There are genuine concerns that expanding the definition of a refugee could "water down the convention", said UNU-EHS’s Warner. "The term ‘refugee’ has political connotations and is frequently used by refugee lobby groups, and anti-refugee lobby groups, to apply targeted pressure on governments."

According to Janos Bogardi, Director of UNU-EHS, developing a definition for various categories of people displaced by environmental factors would require a better understanding of the circumstances in which environmental factors were the "main root cause for migration".

The UNU-EHS is constructing a preliminary classification that would take into account the trigger and type of assistance available to help potential migrants cope in their own countries.

The triggers

Essentially, two kinds of displacement could potentially be caused by global warming: firstly, intensification of weather events, such as cyclones and droughts; secondly, rising sea-levels. These raise conceptual problems on defining a potential migrant forced to flee, said Durieux. Some analysts argue that migration as a result of natural disasters, such as drought, could be seen as a coping strategy rather than a trigger.

"It will be a rare occurrence that 'global warming' produces large-scale and sudden displacement across international borders. In most cases, the displacement will be gradual, spread over lengthy periods and possibly involving many 'stopovers', including within the country of origin. This would make a status determination extremely complicated."

But rising sea-levels could lead to the possible 'disappearance' of entire states. "This (if it occurs) will raise questions of 'international protection' and, indeed, new forms of statelessness, for which new solutions will have to be imagined," Durieux told IRIN.

Etienne Piguet, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, says in one of his papers: "There is agreement today that natural factors are not the sole cause of migration, and that the economic, social and political situation of the zone under threat can, depending on the case, increase or decrease the flow of migrants.

"Apart from the scientific error of oversimplifying the processes taking place, the danger here is also one of "evacuating political responsibility by overplaying the hand of nature".

However, Durieux pointed out that "Where a famine is caused by bad governance ... the existing refugee law instruments suffice to recognise the fleeing victims as refugees.

"While it can be argued that in the final analysis all 'environmentally induced' displacements are in some way man-made, where the responsibility can be attributed clearly to one failing state, or one repressive government, receiving states cannot hide behind the 'natural disaster' screen to deny asylum to the victims," he said.

But who's listening?

At present the European Union member states, which deal with the largest influx of refugees, and Australia and New Zealand, which are the first port of call for several threatened island states in their neighbourhood, are the only countries that have been proactive about the issue, said UNU-EHS’s Warner.

The European Commission is funding a two-year research project, Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios (EACH-FOR), based on case studies in 24 vulnerable countries spanning all continents and conducted by UNU-EHS.

Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
The Indian Ocean tsunami displaced more than two million people
The aim is to find answers to questions such as: who has been migrating away from situations of environmental degradation/change; where; why, and the kind of coping capacity; adaptation mechanisms already in place, and the perception of environmental degradation.

EU member states are focusing on adaptation projects in vulnerable countries as a preventative measure against an influx of refugees;Canada is funding the relocation of residents of parts of Vanuatu, another Pacific Ocean island affected by global warming.

Doctors for the Environment Australia, a branch of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE), a voluntary organisation of physicians, argued in a discussion paper that Australia and New Zealand have a "moral responsibility" to accept refugees from Pacific islands inundated by rising sea levels.

"Their combined population is relatively small - in the region of 150,000 - and some of them, from Tokelaua and Tuvalu, already have negotiated rights to enter New Zealand [unrelated to the impact of climate change]... Only the inhabitants of Kiribati (population 78,000) have no real migration options, and may seek entry into Australia or New Zealand."

But what about populations in non-island states such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt, identified as some of the most vulnerable to rising sea-levels by a World Bank study, says Warner. "There will have to be regional solutions to the problems."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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