Environmental Refugee Crisis

It’s the perfect storm. Climate change, poverty, and the fact that there are so many of us on the planet mean that millions of people are being forced into ever more marginal and vulnerable areas. According to Oxfam International, natural disasters and their associated humanitarian impacts marked 2007 as one of the worst years on record. (1) Africa’s biggest floods in three decades hit 23 countries and affected nearly 2 million people. Nepal, India, and Bangladesh were hit by the worst flooding in living memory, affecting more than 41 million people. Greece and Eastern Europe witnessed heat waves and forest fires that affected more than 1 million people. All told, 254 million people are affected by natural disasters each year. This is up from 174 million 20 years ago. (2) The projections only get worse, so where will all these people go?


Sources: 1. Oxfam International “From Weather Alert to Climate Alarm.” November 2007. 2. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies “World Disaster Reports 2004-6.” Graph reproduced with permission from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) “Disaster Risk Reduction: Global Review 2007” http://www.preventionweb.net/english/hyogo/gar/global-review; data from EM-DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database www.em-dat.net and analysis by P. Peduzzi, UN/ISDR.



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  • Jennifer Doherty April 15, 2012 at 5:02 am

    Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.


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