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Environmental migrant

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Environmental migrant

Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by the roadside, California, 1936

Environmental migrant refers to people who are forced to migrate from or flee their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment which compromise their well being or secure livelihood, such changes are held to include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons.[1] Environmental migrants may flee to or migrate to another country or they may migrate internally within their own country.[2] However, the term 'environmental migrant' is used somewhat interchangeably with a range of similar terms, such as 'environmental refugee', 'climate refugee', 'climate migrant', although the distinction between these terms is contested. Despite problems in formulating a uniform and clear-cut definition of 'environmental migration', such a concept has increased as an issue of concern in the 2000s as policy-makers, environmental and social scientists attempt to conceptualise the potential societal effects of climate change and general environmental degradation.

Definition and concept

The term "environmental refugee" was first proposed by Lester Brown in 1976,[3] since then there has been a proliferation in the use of the term at which "environmental migrant" and a cluster of similar categories, including "forced environmental migrant", "environmentally motivated migrant", "climate refugee", "climate change refugee", "environmentally displaced person (EDP)", "disaster refugee", "environmental displacee", "eco-refugee", "ecologically displaced person" and "environmental-refugee-to-be (ERTB)".[4] have been utilized. The differences between these terms are less important than what they have in common: they all suggest that there is a determinable relationship between environmental drivers and human migration which is analytically useful, policy-relevant and possibly grounds for the expansion of refugee law.

Under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, a refugee is more narrowly defined (in Article 1A) as a person who "owing to 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".[5] While the concept of a refugee was expanded by the Convention's 1967 Protocol and by regional conventions in Africa and Latin America to include persons who had fled war or other violence in their home country, in its present state the convention does not provide long-term legal protection to refugees due to environmental change.[6]

The [7]

"Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad."

The term climate refugees refers to the subset of environmental migrants forced to move "due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity" (Global Governance Project 2012).[8]

However, there is yet to be a universally accepted definition of "environmental migration" or "climate refugee". Thus, The International Organization for Migration formulated a working definition which encompasses the complexity of the topic.

This working definition recognizes that

  • Environmental migrants are not only those displaced by the environmental event but also those whose migration is triggered by deteriorating environmental conditions
  • Environmentally induced movement can take place within as well as across international borders;
  • It can be both long and short term; and
  • Population movements triggered by environmental forces can be forced as well as a matter of choice [7]


The International Organisation for Migration proposes three types of environmental migrants:

  • Environmental emergency migrants: people who flee temporarily due to an environmental disaster or sudden environmental event. (Examples: someone forced to leave due to hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, etc.)
  • Environmental forced migrants: people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions. (Example: someone forced to leave due to a slow deterioration of their environment such as deforestation, coastal deterioration, etc.)
  • Environmental motivated migrants also known as environmentally induced economic migrants: people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems. (Example: someone who leaves due to declining crop productivity caused by desertification)


There have been a number of attempts over the decades to enumerate environmental migrants and refugees. Jodi Jacobson (1988) is cited as the first researcher to enumerate the issue, stating that there were already up to 10 million ‘Environmental Refugees’. Drawing on ‘worst-case scenarios’ about sea-level rise, she argued that all forms of ‘Environmental Refugees’ would be six times as numerous as political refugees. (1988: 38).[9] By 1989, Mustafa Tolba, Executive Director of UNEP, was claiming that 'as many as 50 million people could become environmental refugees' if the world did not act to support sustainable development (Tolba 1989: 25).[10] In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 1990: 20) declared that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be migration, ‘with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought’ (Warner & Laczko: 2008: 235).[11] In the mid-1990s, British environmentalist, Norman Myers, became the most prominent proponent of this ‘maximalist’ school (Suhrke 1993). Noting, that "environmental refugees will soon become the largest group of involuntary refugees".[2] Additionally, he stated that there were 25 million environmental refugees in the mid-1990s, further claiming that this figure could double by 2010, with an upper limit of 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1997).[12] Myers argued that the causes of environmental displacement would include desertification, lack of water, salination of irrigated lands and the depletion of bio-diversity. He also hypothesised that displacement would amount to 30m in China, 30m in India, 15m in Bangladesh, 14m in Egypt, 10m in other delta areas and coastal zones, 1m in island states, and with otherwise agriculturally displaced people totalling 50m (Myers & Kent 1995) by 2050.[13] More recently, Myers has suggested that the figure by 2050 might be as high as 250 million (Christian Aid 2007: 6).[14]

A map showing where natural disasters caused/aggravated by global warming may occur, and thus where environmental refugees would be created

These claims have gained significant currency, with the most common claims being that 150-200 million people will be climate change refugees by 2050. Variations of this claim have been made in influential reports on climate change by the IPCC (Brown 2008: 11)[15] and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern et al. 2006: 3),[16] as well as by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth,[17] Greenpeace Germany (Jakobeit and Methmann 2007)[18] and Christian Aid;[14] and inter-governmental organisations such as the Council of Europe,[19] UNESCO,[20] IOM (Brown 2008) and UNHCR.[21]

Despite these attempts at enumeration, there is in fact a dearth of empirical evidence to support the concept of 'environmental migration’. Norman Myers is perhaps the most widely cited, and the authority of his claims is often attributed to the fact that his chief contribution to the field (Myers & Kent 1995)[13] used over 1000 sources.[22] However, on visiting his bibliography, it becomes apparent that of these sources, the vast majority constitute nothing more than a rather desultory overview of environmental science that has no obvious connection with discussions of societal impacts or migration. Indeed, only 121 sources have even a remote connection to the broad themes of migration, refugee or population displacement. Only 25 of these sources discuss the migration-environment linkage explicitly, and it is worth noting that this number is little different than any other paper on ‘Environmental migration’, and consists chiefly of isolated case study material. Vikram Kolmannskog has stated that Myers’ work can be ‘criticized for being inconsistent, impossible to check and failing to take proper account of opportunities to adapt’ (2008: 9).[23] Furthermore, Myers himself has acknowledged that his figures are based upon ‘heroic extrapolation’ (Brown 2008: 12).[15] More generally, Black has argued that there is ‘surprisingly little scientific evidence’ that indicates that the world is ‘filling-up with environmental refugees’ (1998: 23).[24] Indeed, Francois Gemenne has stated that: 'When it comes to predictions, figures are usually based on the number of people living in regions at risk, and not on the number of people actually expected to migrate. Estimates do not account for adaptation strategies [or] different levels of vulnerability' (Gemenne 2009: 159).[25]

Conceptual problems and criticism

Much of the literature produced on 'environmental migration' assumes the nexus to be self-evident. The category is both emotive and commonsensical, and therefore has widespread currency in the media and among policy makers, non-social scientists and neo-Malthusianist social scientists. However, there is no evidence that the concept can be used to achieve generalisable truths. In brief, this is because the degree to which any given environmental factor is meaningful at the societal level - let alone to any specific aspect of human activity, such as migration - is entirely conditional on socio-economic and political contingencies. In other words, it is impossible to isolate a single environmental factor as an independent variable from which to deduce its impact on a particular (or general) form of social outcome in any way that will be generalisably useful; the relationship will be different depending on circumstance.[1] In that "economic, social, institutional and political factors, combined with other harmful processes and events such as civil war and poverty were all identified to be the principal root cause behind population displacements- not environmental change alone".[26] There has been little work that has bolstered the conceptual integrity of the concept. The concept lacks an agreed definition, and as a consequence, also lacks clear-cut evidence. Predictive models have therefore proved elusive, despite high-profile 'scoping studies', leading to a wide range of estimates, such as that conducted by the European Commission funded EACH-FOR project. Research[27] conducted in areas of 'environmental degradation' which attempted to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation between migration and environmental degradation (including climate change) have so far lacked falsifiability, and have been marked by an absence of counterfactual evidence that has made it impossible to draw any generalisable conclusions from the findings.

In Asia & the Pacific

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 42 million people were displaced in Asia and the Pacific during 2010 and 2011, more than twice the population of Sri Lanka. This figure includes those displaced by storms, floods, and heat and cold waves. Still others were displaced by drought and sea-level rise. Most of those compelled to leave their homes eventually returned when conditions improved, but an undetermined number became migrants, usually within their country, but also across national borders.[28]

Climate-induced migration is a highly complex issue which needs to be understood as part of global migration dynamics. Migration typically has multiple causes, and environmental factors are intertwined with other social and economic factors, which themselves can be influenced by environmental changes. Environmental migration should not be treated solely as a discrete category, set apart from other migration flows. A 2012 Asian Development Bank study argues that climate-induced migration should be addressed as part of a country's development agenda, given the major implications of migration on economic and social development. The report recommends interventions both to address the situation of those who have migrated, as well as those who remain in areas subject to environmental risk. It says: "To reduce migration compelled by worsening environmental conditions, and to strengthen resilience of at-risk communities, governments should adopt polices and commit financing to social protection, livelihoods development, basic urban infrastructure development, and disaster risk management."[29]

Additionally, it is maintained that the poor populate areas that are most at risk for environmental destruction and climate change, including coastlines, flood-lines and steep slopes. As a result, climate change threatens areas already suffering from extreme poverty. "The issue of equity is crucial. Climate affects us all, but does not affect us all equally," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegates at a climate conference in Indonesia.[30] Africa is also one of the world regions where environmental displacement is critical largely due to droughts and other climate related eventualities.[31]

In Minqin county, Gansu Province, "10,000 people have left the area and have become shengtai yimin, 'ecological migrants'".[32]

Political and legal perspectives

The [33] It therefore recommends policymakers around the world take a proactive stance on the matter.[34] The IOM is composed of 146 member states and 13 observer States and "works closely with governments in promoting migration management that ensures humane and orderly migration that is beneficial to migrants and societies."[34] Additionally, When interviewing Oliver- Smith, an anthropologist and member of the UN group, National Geographic Magazine noted that "there are at least 20 million environmental refugees worldwide, the [UN] group says- more than those displaced by war and political repression combined." Therefore, it is imperative that we begin to recognize this recent division of refugee [35]

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has argued that the people who will be forced to move due to climate change currently have no adequate recognition in international law.[36] The EJF contends that a new multilateral legal instrument is required to specifically address the needs of 'climate refugees' in order to confer protection to those fleeing environmental degradation and climate change.[37] They have also asserted that additional funding is needed to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change. Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan have argued for the use of the term 'climate exiles' and for international agreements to provide them political and legal rights, including citizenship in other countries, bearing in mind those countries' responsibilities and capabilities.[38][39][40]

In some cases, climate change may lead to conflict arising between countries that as a result of flooding or other conditions produce a large number of refugees, and bordering countries that build fences to keep out these refugees. The Bangladesh - India border is largely separated via a fence, and case studies suggest the possibility of violent conflict arising due to people fleeing from areas suffering from destruction of arable land. Current migration has already resulted in low-scale conflicts.[41]

Popular culture

German artist Hermann Josef Hack's World Climate Refugee Camp in Hannover displaying 600 small climate refugee tents.
The notion of 'environmental migrant', and particularly 'climate refugee', has gained traction in popular culture. A documentary entitled Climate Refugees has been released. "Climate Refugees" is an Official Selection for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.[42] More recently, Short Documentary Academy Award Nominee, Sun Come Up (2011), tells the story of Carteret islanders who are forced to leave their ancestral land in response to climate change and migrate to war-torn Bougainville [43]

Since 2007, German artist Hermann Josef Hack has shown his World Climate Refugee Camp in the centers of various European cities. The model camp, made of roughly 1000 miniature tents, is a public art intervention that depicts the social impacts of climate change.[44]

Documentary films

  • Climate Refugees (2010), Documentary movie directed by Michael P. Nash. Starring: Lester Brown, Yvo de Boer, Paul Ehrlich
  • Eco Migrants: The Case of Bhola Island (2013), Documentary movie directed by Susan Stein. Starring Katherine Jacobsen, Nancy Schneider, Bogumil Terminski

See also



  1. ^ a b Terminski, Bogumil (2011). Towards Recognition and Protection of Forced Environmental Migrants in the Public International Law: Refugee or IDPs Umbrella, (Policy Studies Organization Summit Proceedings: Washington)
  2. ^ a b Myers, Norman. "Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon ." Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 357.1420 (2002): 609. Print
  3. ^ Brown, L., Mcgrath, P., and Stokes, B., (1976). twenty two dimensions of the population problem, Worldwatch Paper 5, Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute
  4. ^ Boano, C., Zetter, R., and Morris, T., (2008). Environmentally Displaced People: Understanding the linkages between environmental change, livelihoods and forced migration, Refugee Studies Centre Policy Brief No.1 (RSC: Oxford), pg.4
  5. ^ United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (2012). Text of "Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees". Retrieved 5 May 2012.
  6. ^ Hartley, Lindsey. ( 16 February 2012). Treading Water: Climate Change, the Maldives, and De-territorialization. Stimson Centre. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ Global Governance Project. (2012). Forum on Climate Refugees. Retrieved on 5 May 2012.
  9. ^ Jacobson, J.L. (1988). Environmental Refugees: a Yardstick of Habitability, Worldwatch paper 86, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC
  10. ^ Tolba, M. K. (1989). Our biological heritage under siege. Bioscience 39, 725–728
  11. ^ Warner K and Laczko F. (2008). ‘Migration, Environment and Development: New Directions for Research’, in Chamie J, Dall’Oglio L (eds.), International Migration and Development, Continuing the Dialogue: Legal and Policy Perspectives, IOM
  12. ^ Myers, N. (1997). ‘Environmental Refugees’, Population and Environment 19(2): 167-82
  13. ^ a b Myers, N. and Kent, J. (1995). Environmental Exodus: an Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena, (Climate Institute: Washington DC)
  14. ^ a b Christian Aid (2007). ‘Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis’ (CA: London)
  15. ^ a b Brown, O (2008). ‘Migration and Climate Change’, IOM Migration Research Series, paper no.31,
  16. ^ Stern, N. (Ed.) (2006). The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  17. ^ Friends of the Earth, ‘A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees, Fact Sheet Four: Predictions of Climate Refugees to 2050’ (FOTE: London), 2007: 10
  18. ^ Jakobeit, C., and Methmann, C. (2007). Klimafluchtlinge – Die Verleugnete Katastrophe, Greenpeace, Hamburg
  19. ^ Parliamentary Assembly Doc. 11084, 23 Oct 2006, The Problem of Environmental Refugees: 1
  20. ^ UNESCO (2007), ,
  21. ^ UNHCR (2002), ‘A critical time for the environment’, Refugees No.127. Geneva.
  22. ^ Friends of the Earth, A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees, Fact Sheet Four: Predictions of Climate Refugees to 2050
  23. ^ Kolmannskog, V (2008). Future Floods of Refugees, (Norwegian Refugee Council: Oslo)
  24. ^ Black, R. (1998). Refugees, Environment and Development, Harlow: Longman
  25. ^ Gemenne, F (2009). ‘Environmental Migration: Normative Frameworks and Policy Prescriptions’, Doctoral Thesis, Sciences-Po, Paris
  26. ^ McNamarma, Karen . "Conceptualizing Discourses on Environmental Refugees at the United Nations." Population and Environment Vol. 29.No.1 (2007): 14. Print.
  27. ^ Afifi, T., Warner, K. 2007 The Impact of Environmental Degradation on Migration Flows across Countries UNU-EHS working paper no. 3. Bonn.
  28. ^ Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) - Norwegian Refugee Council. "Displacement due to natural hazard-induced disasters: Global estimates for 2009 and 2010". Retrieved 2014-02-23. 
  29. ^ "Addressing Climate Change Migration in Asia & the Pacific 2012" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-02-23. 
  30. ^ "Environmental Refugees." World Vision Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
  31. ^ Adamo, S.; de Sherbinin, A. ( 2011) The impact of climate change on the spatial distribution of populations and migration In: Population Distribution, Urbanization, Internal Migration and Development: An International Perspective (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, United Nations, New York)
  32. ^ Hook, Leslie (14 May 2013). "China: High and dry: Water shortages put a brake on economic growth". Financial Times. Retrieved 2013-05-15. 
  33. ^ International Organization for Migration's Perspective on Migration and Climate Change
  34. ^ a b International Organization for Migration: Key Principles for Policy Making on Migration, Climate Change & the Environmental Degradation
  35. ^ Lovgren, Stefan. "Climate Change Creating Millions of "Eco Refugees," UN Warns." Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines | National Geographic News. N.p., 18 Oct. 2005. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.
  36. ^ "No place like home - climate refugees", The Environmental Justice Foundation, 2009
  37. ^ "Global warming could create 150 million climate refugees by 2050" John Vidal, The Guardian, 3 November 2009.
  38. ^ "Before the Flood" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, The New York Times, 9 May 2005.
  39. ^ "Warming up to Immigrants: An Option for US Climate Policy" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, Economic and Political Weekly, 7 November 2009.
  40. ^ "The Ethical Implications of Sea-Level Rise Due to Climate Change" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 24.3 (Fall 2010).
  41. ^ Litchfield, William Alex. "Climate Change Induced Extreme Weather Events & Sea Level Rise in Bangladesh leading to Migration and Conflict".  
  42. ^ Climate Refugees at Sundance Film Festival 2010
  43. ^ "Sun Come Up: Home." Sun Come Up . N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.
  44. ^ "Hermann Josef Hack Website". Retrieved 2014-02-23. 

Further reading

  • Essam El-Hinnawi, Environmental Refugees, UNEP, 1985.
  • Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Jane McAdam, Forced Migration, Human Rights and Security (Studies in International Law), Hart Publishing, 2008.
  • Bogumil Terminski, Environmentally-Induced Displacement. Theoretical Frameworks and Current Challenges, CEDEM, University of Liège, 2012.
  • Laura Westra, Environmental Justice and the Rights of Ecological Refugees, Routledge, 2009.
  • Gregory White, Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in Warming World, Oxford University Press, 2011.

External links

  • [1] Climate Change, Environment, and Migration Alliance
  • [2] Website of the Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios Project, funded by the European Commission, first time global survey of environmental change and migration (2007–2009)
  • Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia & the Pacific 2012
  • Displacement due to natural hazard-induced disasters: Global estimates for 2009 and 2010
  • [3] Summary of the German Marshall Fund Study Team on Climate Change and Migration
  • [4] A new initiative (2011 - 2014) to investigate agro-climatic risks, hunger and human mobility.
  • No Place Like Home Environmental Justice Foundation campaign for climate refugees - includes films and reports
  • Towards Recognition Awareness and resource blog regarding environmental migrants
  • Summary of resources. Summary page providing links to many key resources, websites and documents related to climate change, environmental change, disasters and forced migration. Forced Migration Online, 2008
  • When home gets too hot: Human Displacement and Climate Change in International Law. Podcast recorded by Radio Netherlands Worldwide at the first of The Hague Debates on Thursday, 22 May 2008.
  • Future floods of refugees. Report published by the Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008
  • A Citizens Guide to Climate Refugees. Published by Friends of the Earth Australia, 2005
  • Photos from ARGOS photojournalists
  • regularly updated information about fieldwork on environmental change and forced migration scenarios
  • Providing new homes for climate exiles
  • Climate Refugees Report Nov 2009 Highlighting the humanitarian plight of an estimated 150 million people whose homes will be lost as a result of climate change by 2050
  • Climate refugees and Israel in the year 2500 A.D.
  • A research center dedicated to the topic.
  • Fortress India: Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors? by Scott Carney, Jason Miklian, Kristian Hoelscher in July/August 2011 Foreign Policy
  • UNESCO (2011) 'Migration and Climate Change'
  • Piguet, E., Pécoud, A. and de Guchteneire, P. (2010) Migration and Climate Change: an Overview
  • Climate change, water stress, conflict and migration Proceedings of a conference in The Hague, September 2011
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