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Scholars Predict 50 Million “Environmental Refugees” by 2010

Effects of Climate Change Eventually May Cause Hundreds of Millions to Migrate

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Waves crash as the sun sets in the Atlantic Ocean.
Dougal Waters/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Scholars are predicting that 50 million people worldwide will be displaced by 2010 because of rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, weather-induced flooding and other serious environmental changes. So says Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation in the United Kingdom and the author of a book titled, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.”

In an interview with Steve Curwood, host of Living on Earth, an independent media program funded by listener contributions and institutions that support public service, Simms says that these people should be considered “environmental refugees” and given refugee status under international law.

No Aid Available to “Environmental Refugees”
According to the United Nations University (UNU), an international community scholars that work on pressing global problems, victims of political upheaval or violence have access through governments and international organizations to assistance such as financial grants, food, tools, shelter, schools and clinics, but “environmental refugees” receive no such aid because they are not yet recognized in world conventions.

The UNU says that environmental problems already have contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions of people. Meanwhile, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than by war.

Environmental Persecution
Simms argues that because the homes of these displaced people are being gradually destroyed as a result of environmental policies pursued by industrialized nations, it amounts to “environmental persecution,” which makes them legitimate refugees deserving of legal protection.

Scholars at the United Nations University agree.

“There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena,” says Janos Bogardi, director of UNU’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). “This new category of ‘refugee’ needs to find a place in international agreements. We need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations.”

Environmental Changes Causing Widespread Migration
Environment-related migration has been most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also affects millions of people in Asia and India. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are witnessing increasing pressure from victims of often mismanaged and deteriorating soil and water conditions in North Africa and Latin America.

Such migrations may grow dramatically in future:

  • Among many global problem sites, Sana'a, Yemen’s capital, has doubled its population on average every six years since 1972 and now stands at 900,000. The aquifer on which the city depends is falling by 6 meters a year, and may be exhausted by 2010, according to the World Bank.
  • In China, the Gobi desert expands more than 10,000 square kilometers per year, threatening many villages. Oxford-based expert Norman Myers says Morocco, Tunisia and Libya each lose over 1,000 square kilometers of productive land annually to desertification.
  • In Egypt, half of irrigated croplands suffer from salinization, while in Turkey 160,000 square kilometers of farmlands is affected by soil erosion.
  • In the United States, Louisiana now loses roughly 65 square kilometers per year to erosion by the sea, while in Alaska 213 communities are threatened by tides that creep roughly 3 meters further inland each year.
  • The low-lying Pacific island state of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with New Zealand to accept its 11,600 citizens in the event rising sea levels swamp the country.
  • By one rough estimate, as many as 100 million people worldwide live in areas below sea level and/or are subject to storm surge.

“Around the world, vulnerability is on the increase due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas,” says Dr. Tony Oliver-Smith, a Florida professor who is a UNU-EHS Munich Re Foundation chair holder designate for 2007-08. “Many cities are overwhelmed, incapable of handling with any degree of effectiveness the demands of a burgeoning number of people, many of whom take up shelter in flimsy shanties.

“Combine this trend with rising sea levels and the growing number and intensity of storms and it is the recipe for a disaster-in-waiting, with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration.”

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