Environmental disruption and migration
Migration is a complex global phenomenon resulting from a wide range of so-called push and pull factors. One of the reasons that gained international prominence is the notion that climate change and environmental degradation significantly increase population displacement because people can no longer sustain a dignified life at home. Already in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its first report that the impact of climate change would be on human migration. In 1992, at the Preparatory Meeting of the Summit of Rio de Janeiro, Sadako Ogata, then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that environmental degradation has increasingly become both a cause and symptom of massive population movements. The relationship between changes in the environment and migration has ever since gained increasing interest within the international community.
There is wide debate and a lack of consensus on the concept of "environmental refugees". First, it should be noted that people who migrate for environmental reasons do not fall within the categories covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention. The term was first used in 1985 by Essam El-Hinnawi in a report for the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and included three categories: temporary displacement due to natural disasters, displaced people due to permanent environmental degradation, and those who migrate permanently or temporarily because of ecological changes in their environment and who cannot afford to mitigate the changes. The term "environmental refugee" is controversial and sparked discussions within the academic community. The discussion focuses primarily on the existence or not of a direct relationship between environmental disruptions and the displacement of people. It is generally accepted that a growing number of people have no alternative but to seek refuge elsewhere because of drought, soil erosion, desertification and other environmental problems. But, it can also be argued that the term simplifies the "multi-causality of social, economic and political factors which underpin environmentally-forced migration."1 William B. Wood, the official Geographer of the US Department of State, proposes the term "eco-migrant" to refer to people who move for environmental causes. This term would allow capturing the multiple factors that cover the linkage between environmental degradation, people's livelihoods and forced migration.
Internally Displaced People (IDP)
The UNHCR defines IDPs as "Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border"
Environmental degradation does cause the internal displacement of people. In fact, most environmental migrants move within their own country, primarily from the country side to the urban areas. According to the 2009 study "Monitoring disaster displacement in the context of climate change" by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) study, 36 million people were newly displaced, within their countries and across borders, by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2008.
In the fourth IPCC report, it is estimated that by 2100 there will be an increase of the global average temperature between 1.4 and 5.8 centigrade, resulting in major floods and droughts as well as the gradual increase of the sea level (between 8 and 88 centimeter). The most affected areas will be the coastal zones and the islands of the Pacific.
Tuvalu is a paradigmatic example of the relationship between global warming and migration. The progressive increase of the sea level is invading the island's reservoirs of sweet water and the rise of the oceantemperature is damaging the coral reefs and putting at risk the population of fish. The result is that increasingly inhabitants are forced to move because they cannot sustain their livelihoods.
"Tragically, our environment is changing. The old people have noticed the changes, beaches have disappeared, small islets have been washed away, coral reefs are starting to die and crops are dying from salt-water intrusion. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed all these observations and predicted worse to come. As the temperature of the oceans increases, more corals will die. Sea levels will rise and severe storms will get far worse. Tuvalu faces a very uncertain future." Affirmed Apisai Ielemia Prime Minister of Tuvalu
According to the IPCC, Pacific Islanders are the least contributors to emissions of greenhouse gases, but they are three times more vulnerable to climate change than other countries.
The government of Tuvalu has discussed migration policies with thegovernments of Australia and New Zealand. And it is likely to become the first nation with "environmental refugees." Australia has been approached by the islands' authorities, but has not agreed to let the 12,000 islanders resettle there. New Zealand instituted a program called the Pacific Access Category (PAC) in 2001, but has no explicit policy to take in people from Pacific island countries that are forced to leave their country because of climate change. Also, the individuals seeking residency in New Zealand must meet certain criteria. For example, they must be between the ages of 18 and 45; this leaves unprotected a large vulnerable fraction of the population: children and the elderly.
Another example is Bangladesh. According to the Forced Migration Review No. 31 the country is one of the most vulnerable to any changes caused by global warming: the rise of the sea level, the overflowing of rivers, the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, increased frequency of natural disasters, droughts, etc., have negative effects on its population and could generate significant numbers of forced migrants. In November 2007, for example, cyclone Sidr caused 3.2 million displaced people who were forced to move to the capital Dhaka or to migrate to India or other countries.
Increased Meteorological Disasters
The report of the Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) states that the increase of extreme events in climate variability is closely linked to climate change. The increasing number of natural catastrophes has become more firmly entrenched since the mid-1980s. Forced Migration Review No. 31 establishes that these "disasters create social and economic stresses that can result in significant dislocation and migration. The authors write that: "The increase in disasters can be seen as a red light, a warning of unsustainable development. More people inhabit risky places and risky dwellings, undertaking large-scale activities that raise risk, like settling on flood plains, storm exposed coasts and landslide-prone hillsides, and building schools and apartments that will collapse in cyclones or earthquakes. Protective mangroves are cleared for shrimp farms, flood-buffering wetlands are filled for industrial zones, and rainfall-absorbing forests are stripped from steep and unstable hillsides."
The Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, adopted at the 2005 World Conference on Disasters Reduction (WCDR) seeks "the substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries." This document highlights the need to link the reduction of the risk of disasters to policies of sustainable development, and to return the attention to the root causes of risks.
The report of the UNU-EHS warns that beyond the national and international efforts to mitigate the consequences of the natural disasters, their impacts are affecting an increasing number of communities and can become an important factor causing massive population displacement. Hence, is "important to rapidly address, at the policy level, the issue of environmental migrants/refugees."
Both hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean demonstrated clearly the need to take into account the community of migrants, both regular and irregular, at the moment of planning the prevention of the natural disasters. Frank Laczko, IOM's Head of Research, said "When disaster strikes, migrant communities often tend to become forgotten, hidden groups that miss out on humanitarian assistance and support" and he added "And because their basic needs are overlooked, they become even more marginalized and vulnerable." From the paper "Migration, Development and Natural Disasters"
The director of the Central American Resource Center (CAREC), an NGO that works with migrants, Nelson Reyes said that "Katrina confirmed that migrants are more vulnerable because of losses suffered by the hurricane added their undocumented status." The U.S. Government assured that the aid granted to the victims did not consider their immigration status, however, according to Reyes, many of the irregular immigrants feared of being deported and therefore did not ask for help.
1 See: "Environmentally displaced people: understanding the linkages between environmental change, livelihoods and forced migration." Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford (2008). The document is available here: http://repository.forcedmigration.or /show_metadata.jsp?pid=fmo:4960