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Environmental Refugees: A case for including them within the ambit of International Refugee Law

Mainstream environmental law does not address the concerns of environmental refugees. There needs to be cognizance of the intersection of both disciplines under the   broad   category   of  the  law
write Kirthi Jayakumar and Natasha Jolly.

In 1985, El Hinnawi identified a new class of persons, called as Environmental Refugees. He defined them to be those who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardized their existence, and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. It is estimated that there are currently about 10 million environmental refugees world over. The concept of environmental refugees is a relatively new phenomenon. Environmental refugees are essentially people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries, many being internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi-permanent if not permanent basis, with little hope of a foreseeable return.

As the world delves deeper into the realms of technological advancements, the consequential environmental changes pose new challenges to international law. As predicted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report the average temperature of the air and the sea, pollution and other symptoms of a changing climate will likely lead to a rise of the sea level, desertification, deforestation, extreme storms and  earthquakes. There are an estimated 25 million environmental refugees today and the numbers are likely to grow even faster in future.  The primary questions which have to be addressed in regards to the aforementioned issue are: 

  • If the Environment is sometimes linked with other reasons for leaving a state, what legal status can an environmental refugee be given?
  • Has the term environmental refugee to be included in the Convention in order to fit international human rights law? 
  • How feasible is a separate genre of environmental poverty law, in dealing with the issue of environmental refugees?

Environmental Hazards + People = Environmental Refugees

El-Hinnawi identified three broad categories of environmental migrants: persons who are displaced temporarily, but can return to their home when the damage to the environment is repaired; persons who are permanently displaced and have resettled elsewhere; and persons who migrate from their original home in search of a better quality of life when their original habitat has been degraded to such an extent that it does not meet their basic needs. The international community has been urged to officially recognize environmental refugees and to better understand the causes of environmental migration. It would seem a truism to note that the grave consequences of environmental hazards affect the economically and socially backward segments in society. In particular, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between refugees driven by environmental factors and those impelled by economic problems. In certain instances, people with moderate though tolerable economic circumstances at home feel drawn by opportunity for a better livelihood elsewhere. They are not so much pushed by environmental deprivation as pulled by economic promise. This ostensibly applies to many Hispanics heading for the United States.
A simple example to denote the situation shrouding this segment of people is in order. A tribal community living in the deep jungles of a state, bearing minimal contact with the outside world, is driven to move out of the forest region, out into the neighbouring state, on account of the flooding of a nearby meandering transboundary acquifer, on account of the dumping of effluents and global warming. Imputing responsibility to any one state or any one entity is virtually impossible, on account of the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility.  What, then, can the second state do with the sudden influx of refugees? Can there be room for the new influx? Is it culturally, socially, economically or politically easy for the community to adapt?

In short, there is a gradient of factors at work. At one end are those people who are driven by environmental problems outright, and at the other end are economic migrants who are voluntary opportunists rather than refugees. In between is a grey zone where one category sometimes tends to merge into the other. The assessment to date is no more than a first-cut effort, albeit preliminary and exploratory, to come to grips with a prominent and fast-growing problem that is all too real for those who endure it, however much the purists may argue about final definitions. Above all these sub-problems is the lack of official recognition, whether on the part of governments or international agencies, that there is an environmental refugee problem at all. A large number of these situations are created with the accumulation of several years' worth of pollution and environmental destruction, and is not a one time or a one cause event. As a consequence, it sparks off a chain of events, intricately weaving a weft of social, political, economic and cultural effects. For all practical purposes, it would thus, be imperative for the implementation of a stringent law to settle the issue.

It is difficult to distinguish among the different causes of displacement, because, as stated earlier, displacement occurs due to a combination of several factors. A general consensus among scholars on five broad causes of displacement- natural disasters, long-tem environmental degradation, development, industrial accidents and remnants of war.

1) Natural Disasters:

The term 'natural disasters' refers to events such as volcanic eruptions, droughts, earthquakes and all other types of disasters generated by an unstable natural environment. Natural disasters have been a major cause of migration throughout history. It is estimated that between 1973 and 1997, about 3.6 billion people were affected by natural disasters. The 1990s were declared to be the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction by the United Nations, with an aim of preventing the contribution of man-made activities towards causing certain kinds of natural disasters. However, there has been a sudden surge in the number of natural disasters, as depicted by the Geoscience Division of the Munich Reinsurance Group.

This is partly due to the global temperature anomalies such as the El Nino and La Nina effects. The focal point is that natural disasters disproportionately affect Africa, Asia and South America. Research shows that 96% of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries. Most countries in the aforementioned regions are amongst the poorest in the world. Combating natural disasters clearly, thus, requires a better policy alternative. Because natural disasters constitute only one of the many causes of environmental migration, the development of appropriate policy priorities depends on the quantification and the classification of the broader problem of environmental displacement.

2) Industrial Accidents:

There are a plethora of examples of industrial accidents causing large numbers of persons to be displaced. The infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy witnessed a chemical accident that killed over 1000 people and displaced over 200,000 people, many of whom are still reeling under the after effects. A nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in the United States of America displaced 10,000 people. In Seveso, Italy, an explosion at a chemical factory released chemical compounds akin to defoliants in Vietnam, into the atmosphere. The Chernobyl incident witnessed the evacuation of thousands of people by the Russian government. Till date, a thirty-mile radius around Chernobyl remains uninhabited. Radiation contamination, possessing a half-life of about 25,000 years, assures contamination forever.  Most cases ensuing from the displacement of individuals out of industrial accidents depicts instances of seeking refuge within the borders of the country itself.

3) Armed Conflicts:

War stands at the centre of environmental destruction. This occurs because environmental destruction is itself used as a weapon of war, and most conflicts originate from disputed claims for natural resources and land. An example explaining the former is the war in Vietnam, where the US resorted to the deliberate military tactic of destroying the environment. The countryside was emptied and people were forced to migrate to the urban areas. A massive campaign of deforestation resulting in the use of herbicides and the bombardment of agricultural zones soon followed suit. Another example of the same is the case of El Salvador, in the early 1980s, where the destruction of the environment was resorted to in order to eradicate guerrilla bases in the forests. The Gulf war depicted a case of ecocide, too, where oil fires and spillages by Iraq in Kuwait destroyed the environment. In what was deemed a historical move, the United Nations Security Council, in the context of the Gulf War, had passed Resolution 687 on April 3rd 1991, reaffirming that Iraq was liable under international law for any direct loss or damage, including environmental damage. More recently, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, entered into force on 1st July, 2002, listed the launching of long-term and severe damage to the natural environment as a war crime.

An example of the fact that the conflict itself originates with the environment and its allied resources as a focal point, would be the case of Gaza and Israel. According to the World Bank, 90% of the water in the region is used for Israel's profit, while the Palestinians use only 10%. The seizing of resources results in economic marginalization caused by forcing people to move from fertile to less rich lands. The result of such conflicts is best evidenced by the example of Senegal. In 1989, close to 70,000 Mauritians were expelled from the valley of the River Senegal as a direct result of the seizure of natural resources.

Refugees or Not?

History is full of examples of people driven from their homes by a hostile environment – and it's increasingly hard to distinguish these factors from economic ones. Throughout the world, particularly the less developed rural countries, there's probably no meaningful difference – the environment is the direct source of people's livelihoods. But the scale and speed at which humans are altering the global environment has over the last two decades altered perceptions in two ways. First, there is a new awareness of environmental factors as the triggers for major population movements. Second, it's recognised that humans are pulling the trigger – that what were once considered “natural” disasters are increasingly man-made.

According to more recent estimates by Dr Norman Myers of Oxford University, by 2050 up to 150 million people may be displaced by the impacts of global warming, such as sea level rise –equivalent to over 1.5 per cent of 2050's predicted global population of around 9 billion. Global warming is, of course, a man-made phenomenon. Indeed, one of the ironies of the debate is the link between travel, climate change and migration. The improved access to trains, planes and other travel options – both commercially and for leisure purposes – is one of the main factors driving Western economies' insatiable consumption of fossil fuels. That, in turn, fuels climate change, which ends up displacing people and causing more population movement. But it's also important to remember that while international travel may be cheaper and more accessible than at any time in history, the cost of a plane or train ticket is still well beyond the reach of the majority of the world's population. Western Europe and the US cannot continue to consume with impunity, without regard to their impact on the global environment. This means an historic act of facing up to the real cost of our lifestyle. It also means revising how we define, and what we mean by, the term “refugee”.

a) Environmental Refugees:

International humanitarian law mandates that there are four principal elements to the definition of the term refugee, as under the Refugee Convention. These essentials are herein enumerated:

  • They must be outside their country of origin
  • They must be unwilling or unable to avail themselves of the protection of their country or return there
  • Such inability or unwillingness should be attributable to a well-founded fear of being persecuted
  • The persecution so feared must be based on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Clearly, the definition does not evince room for the definition of environmental refugees. Another perception of environmental refugees warrants a brief distinction between an environmental refugee and an environmental migrant. While the former is compelled to flee by a sudden, drastic environmental change that cannot be reversed, the latter include people who make a voluntary, rational choice to leave their place of residence. While neither comes under the aforementioned essentials, it stands clear that the term Environmental Refugees stands out as a misnomer.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as also the Refugee Policy Group, have all opted out of using the term environmental refugees. Impetus is given, instead, towards using the term environmentally displaced persons. The definition given for this new term is that they are persons who are displaced within their own country of habitual residence, or who have crossed an international border, and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is  a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one.

The convention spells out what a refugee is, and the sort of protection they should receive – legal or social welfare, for example. According to the convention, a refugee is someone who holds 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; 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.' Many Western European governments have argued that “economic” and other migrants take advantage of the convention to make better lives for themselves outside their country of birth. This is a controversial issue within the migration and refugee debate. Environmental reasons for granting refugee status are not currently listed in the convention, and there is resistance to categorising refugees on these grounds. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has consistently rejected the case for categorising the environment as a basis for refugee status, arguing that it must concentrate its limited resources on those fleeing political, religious or ideological persecution.

It is a workable idea to expand the existing definition under the 1951 Convention. The fundamental freedoms enshrined under it are echoed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights are also echoed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Therefore, a solution to the problem of environmentally displaced persons would be to extend the 1951 definition contained in the Refugee Convention in line with the developments in Human Rights Law. However, the expansion of the definition would lead to much consternation. Some of these points are summarized herein.

  • First, the expansion of the definition would lead to a devaluation of the existent protection of refugees. This is because, migration due to environmental factors is rarely a result of governmental oppression.
  • Second, the vast majority of environmentally displaced persons are internally displaced because they are not fleeing State persecution.
  • Third, only a limited expansion of the definition would be possible given the enormous number of environmentally displaced persons.

None of the definitions under international law, recognize the environment as a single cause of migration, and neither provides protection for environmental refugees. This is in line with academic writing on the subject that asserts that environmental change, as a cause of migration, cannot be meaningfully separated from political, economic and social changes.

b) Internally displaced persons:

In 1998, the United Nations Secretary General's representative for displaced persons, Francis M.Deng, defined the term internally displaced persons, in the following manner:

Displaced Persons are persons or groups 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 human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.

No convention mentions the concept of displaced persons. One advancement, however, is that displaced persons are placed on the mandate of the UNHCR, since 1975. It is however, unfortunate that under international law, displaced persons do not form a juridical category. There is precious little benefit ensuing from according such people the status of displaced persons, for it is only a descriptive term, and does not confer a status warranting obligations from states.

Consequences of Environmental Migration

The consequences of the flux of environmental refugees among others, is further damage to the environment. The initial damage to the environment begins in the refugee camps itself, where space is created by cutting down on foliage and forests, thereby creating more room for environment deprecation. All in all, the issue of environmental refugees promises to rank as one of the foremost human crises of our times. To date, however, it has been viewed as a peripheral concern, a kind of aberration from the normal order of things--even though it is an outward manifestation of profound deprivation and despair. While it derives primarily from environmental problems, it generates myriad problems of political, social and economic sorts. As such, it could readily become a cause of turmoil and confrontation, leading to conflict and violence. Yet as the problem becomes more pressing, our policy responses fall ever-further short of measuring up to the challenge. To repeat a pivotal point: environmental refugees have still to be officially recognized as a problem at all.

Aside of this, the newly migrated population lives in the throes of poverty, on account of having frugal means to get by with life. Some of the basic problems are herein enumerated:

  • Refugees generally rely on natural resources in order to sustain themselves, certainly in the early period before the arrival of aid. This reliance will nevertheless continue in some form or the other, during the period of their stay outside their home countries. This poses a threat to the sustainability of natural resources and the environment in general as the use of the surrounding environment constitutes a major part of the livelihood of the refugees.
  • The environment is subject to unsustainable use, threatening the livelihood of the refugees, and of the host population. Exhaustion of resources would undermine the willingness of the host populations to accept the presence of refugees.
  • The presence of refugees on the host territory leads to poverty. Refugees are left with frugal resources after their exodus, it also stands to be true that several such segments of population find it socially and culturally difficult to acclimatize in the new environment. They are neither in a position to embark on work opportunities that put enough money in their pockets, nor so readily accepted by their counterparts in the host country. At another level, the presence of refugees results in poverty among the host country's population. A reduction in available resources, job opportunities and basic amenities threatens the order in the daily lives of the host population.
  • States would soon be driven to a point where the acceptance of environmental refugees becomes a matter of great difficulty. In essence, the immediate livelihood of people seeking to survive comes into conflict with longer-term and more global concerns of protection of endangered species or lands. However, these concerns can also be manipulated to prevent asylum seekers from crossing borders. For example, Turkey and Honduras have closed their borders to asylum seekers in the past citing environmental damage as their justification. Politics do not always hinge on environmental concerns, but it is politically expedient to blame refugees for environmental damage. There are limits to host countries' capacity, let alone willingness, to take in outsiders.
  • The UNHCR has identified three environmental impact issues relating to the influx of refugees: the disproportionately high population densities often created in refugee settlements; the tendency to site camps in environmentally fragile areas; and the refugees' lack of incentive to conserve the environment, because the land where they live is not theirs.

Remedying the situation

There is much scope for preventive policies, with the aim of reducing the need to migrate by ensuring an acceptable livelihood in established homelands. First of all, an expanded approach towards refugees generally in order to include environmental refugees in particular, is necessary. If official standing were to be accorded to these refugees, this might help to engender a recognised constituency. While desertification entrains costs of $42 billion a year just through the loss of agricultural produce, the United Nations' Anti-Desertification Action Plan would cost no more than $22 billion a year. Yet the amount subscribed so far falls far short of the target, ostensibly on the grounds that arid-land dwellers have no constituency and hence lack political leverage.

Secondly, a widened and deepened understanding of environmental refugees by establishing the root causes of the problem is needed. Not only environmental causes but associated problems such as security concerns, plus the interplay of the two sets of forces, are to be understood. There are many conceptual grey areas as concerns proximate and ultimate causes, the contributory roles of population pressures and poverty, the linkages to ethnic tensions and conventional conflict, and so lengthily forth. Consider too the root causes of famine. If a famine has been human-made, it can be human-unmade, whereas natural factors can only be managed and accommodated.

Probably most important of all is that there can be little progress except within an overall context of what has come to be known as Sustainable Development. This applies notably to reliable access to food, water, energy, health and other basic human needs--lack of which is behind many environmental refugees' need to migrate. In big picture terms, sustainable development represents a sound way to pre-empt the environmental refugee issue in its full scope over the long run. There would be a handsome payoff on investment to foster Sustainable Development in developing countries through greater policy emphasis on environmental safeguards. A prime way to tackle desertification, salinization, in fact several sorts of land degradation, is through planting trees for shelter belts, to retain soil moisture, and to resist soil erosion. Certain types of trees offer additional benefits- leguminous species add nitrogen to infertile soils, or they supply built-in insecticides, or they offer industrial timber. Probably the biggest benefit lies with reforestation in montane areas, in order to rehabilitate hydrological systems and watershed functions, and thus avoiding floods and drying-outs for river systems downstream. All in all, and in whatever part of the world, restoring tree cover almost always presents an exceptional win-win outcome.


The epithet of 'environmental refugees' is a legal misnomer. The impracticalities that underlie the inclusion of the environment as a cause for the creation of refugees are plenty. It is not practical to advocate an extension of the definition of the term refugee to include those who are environmentally displaced. The significance of the term lies in its application to environmentalist literature as opposed to asylum literature- highlighting the environment as a sole cause or consequence of large migration movements will increase interest in its protection. While there can be a link between the environment and migration, there is a lack of evidence that the environment can be a sole and substantive cause of migration, or that migration can have a direct and substantive impact on the environment. The focus must be on the environment- highlighting this category of people draws attention to the environmental causes and consequences of migration.

It signals the need to tackle the refugee issue preventatively, by seeking the cause of mass displacements. Preventable environmental damage is rarely the sole factor in large-scale migrations. There is a certain appeal in citing refugees as a reason for protecting the environment, and in citing the environment as a reason for protecting refugees. However, it has little practical benefits for either. What is of more practical import is to understand the relationship between people and the environment as a part of the analysis of the causes and consequences of the movement, rather than as the sole cause or consequence.

KIRTHI JAYAKUMAR is a lawyer who is currently working as a journalist and also doing volunteered work for the United Nations & NATASHA JOLLY is a final year student pursuing law from School of Excellence, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Chennai.
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