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Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees

The term environmental refugee was coined in the late 1980s by the United Nations Environment Programme and refers to people who are forced to leave their community of origin because the land can no longer support them. Environmental factors such as soil erosion , drought , or floods, which are often coupled with poor socioeconomic conditions, are the cause of this loss of stability and security. Many environmental influences may cause such a displacement and include the deterioration of agricultural land, natural or "unnatural" disasters, climate change, the destruction resulting from war, and environmental scarcity .

Environmental scarcity can be supply induced, demand induced, or structural. Supply induced scarcity refers to the depletion of agricultural resources, as in the erosion of crop-land or overgrazing . Demand induced scarcity occurs when consumption of a resource increases or when population growth occurs, as is occurring in countries such as Philippines, Kenya, and Costa Rica. Structural scarcity results from the unequal social distribution of a resource within a community. The causes of environmental scarcity can occur simultaneously and in combination with each other, as seen in South Africa during the years of apartheid. Approximately 60% of the cropland in South Africa is marked by low organic content, and half of the country receives less than 19.5 in (500 mm) of annual precipitation. When these factors were coupled with the rapid soil erosion, overcrowding, and unequal social distribution of resources experienced at this time, environmental scarcity resulted. Other environmental influences such as climate change and natural disasters can greatly compound the problems related to scarcity. Those countries which are especially vulnerable to these other influences are those which are already experiencing the precursors to scarcity, for example, highly populated countries such as Egypt and Bangladesh. On Haiti, per capita grain production is half of what it was only 40 years ago and residents only get about 80% of their minimum nutritional needs. Environmental problems place an added burden on a situation that is already under pressure. When this combination occurs in societies without strong social ties or political and economic stability, many times the people within the population have no choice but to relocate.

Environmental refugees tend to come from rural areas and developing countries--those most vulnerable to the influences of scarcity, climate change, and natural disasters. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , since the early 1960s most emergencies involving refugees have taken place in these less developed countries where resources are inadequate to support the population during times of need. In 1995, CDC directed 45 relief missions to developing countries such as Angola, Bosnia, Haiti, and Sierra Leone.

The number of displaced people is rising worldwide. Of these, the number forced to migrate because of economic and environmental conditions is growing more rapidly than refugees from political strife. According to Dr. Norman Myers at the University of Oxford, there are 25 million environmental refugees today, compared with 20 million officially recognized refugees migrating due to political, religious, or ethical problems. It has been predicted that by the year 2010, this number could rise to 50 million. The number of migrants seeking environmental refuge is grossly underestimated because many do not actually cross borders but are forced to wander within their own country. As global warming causes major climate changes, these numbers could increase even more. Climate change alone may displace 150 million more people by the middle of the next century. Not only would a global climate change increase the number of refugees, it could have a negative impact on agricultural production which would seriously limit the amount of food surpluses available to help displaced people.

Although approximately three out of every five refugees are fleeing from environmental hardships, this group of refugees is not legally recognized. According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees as modified by the 1967 Protocol, a legal refugee is a person who escapes a country and cannot re-enter due to fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social affiliation, or political opinion. This definition requires both the element of persecution as well as cross-border migration . Because of these two requirements, states are not legally compelled to recognize environmental refugees; as mentioned above, many of these refugees never leave their own country, and it is unreasonable to expect them to prove fear of persecution. Environmental refugees are often forced to enter a country illegally since they cannot be granted protection or asylum. Many of the Mexican immigrants who enter the United States are escaping the sterile, unproductive land they have been living on. Over 60% of the land in Mexico is degraded, with soil erosion contributing to over 494,000 acres (200,000 ha) more land being rendered unproductive every year. Many of the people considered to be economic migrants are actually environmental refugees. Those that are recognized as political refugees often must live in overcrowded refugee camps which are no more prepared to sustain the population than the land they are escaping from. Two thousand Somali refugees forced to live in such camps on the border of Kenya were displaced once more when flooding in 1994 ended a long drought but destroyed relief food. Many environmental refugees never resettle and must live the rest of their lives migrating from place to place, looking for land that can sustain them.

Researchers are currently working on ways to predict where the next large migrations will come from and how to prevent them from occurring. Predictive models are extremely difficult to produce because of the interaction between the socioeconomic status of the people and the environmental influences on the land. Stuart Liederman, an environmental scientist at the University of New Hampshire, is developing a model which will predict which areas are at risk of producing environmental refugees. This model is a mathematical formula which could be used with any population. One side of the equation combines the rate of environmental decay, the amount of time over which this deterioration will take place, and the susceptibility of the people and the environment . The other side of the equation combines the restoration rate, the time it would take to reestablish the environment, and the potential for recovery of the people and the land. These predictions will allow for preventive measures to be taken, for preparations to be made for future refugees, and for restoring the devastated homelands of past migrants. Creation of a working model may also help convince policymakers that those escaping unlivable environmental conditions need to be legally recognized as refugees.

Until environmental refugees are granted legal status, there will be no protection or compensation granted these individuals. The most effective way to deal with the growing number of displaced persons is to concentrate on the reasons they are being forced to leave their homelands. The increasing number of people forced to leave their homeland due to ecological strife is an indicator of environmental quality. Environmental protection is necessary to prevent the situation in many countries from getting worse. In the meantime, measures must be taken to accommodate the needs of these refugees, and the environment must be recognized as a legitimate source of conflict for individuals seeking protection in other lands.

[Jennifer L. McGrath ]



Jacobson, J. L. Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability. Worldwatch Institute, 1988.

Tickell, C. "Environmental Refugees: The Human Impact of Global Environmental Change." In Greenhouse Glasnost: The Crisis of Global Warming, edited by T. Minger. New York: Ecco Press, 1990.

Lindahl-Kiessling, K., and H. Landberg, eds. Population, Economic Development, and the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Fell, N. "Outcasts from Eden." New Scientist Magazine 151, no. 2045 (August 1996): 247.

Homer-Dixon, T. F. "Environmental Change and Economic Decline in Developing Countries." International Studies Notes 16, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 18.

Myers, N. "Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World." BioScience 43, no. 11 (December 1993): 75261.


Centers for Disease Control. Famine Affected, Refugee, and Displaced Populations: Recommendations For Public Health Issues. MMWR 1992; 41 (No RR-13).

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