Environmental Refugees
Environmental Refugees

In recent years, the concept of “environmental refugees” has gained new importance, as global climate change and desertification have threatened the livelihoods of millions of people, causing many to leave home in search of new opportunities. “Environmental refugee”, a term coined by Essam El-Hinnawi, describes “people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously effects the quality of their life” (LISER.eu).

As of 1995, the last year when a thorough assessment was undertaken, the number of environmental refugees had reached 25 million, with this number expected to double by 2020 (Zelman, 2011). During 2012, approximately 32.4 million people were displaced by environmental disasters, including those who were forced to relocate within their countries of origin and those who sought refuge through international migration.  Ninety-eight percent of this displacement was caused by climate- and weather-related disasters, especially flooding.  While developing nations tend to be disproportionately affected by such displacement, often due to “compounded vulnerability” of repeated natural disasters and difficulty rebuilding infrastructure and protections for the future, wealthy countries also suffered considerable environmental-induced displacement during 2012 (IDMC, 2012).

Desertification currently affects between 100 and 200 million people worldwide.  In northern Africa, the region arguably most affected by this environmental trend, desertification threatens an additional 50 million inhabitants of land at risk of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change and poor farming techniques.  This trend has led to a wave of North African migrants fleeing to Western Europe in order to escape crop failure and water shortage. Although many environmental refugees would like to make it to Western Europe, the vast majority end up migrating to neighboring countries, which tend to be some of the poorest in the world. In many of these places, refugees are seen as unwelcome guests, putting further strain on already scarce water and land supplies. This social mistrust and competition may escalate to further conflict and violence (Re-thinking Policies to Cope with Desertification, 2006).

According to Oxford-based environmental migration expert Norman Myers, when global climate change takes hold, “there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding” (2008). Exposure to the negative effects of global climate change will, in many cases, lead to massive waves of migration.  A striking example of this is the small island of Kiribati, whose 94,000 inhabitants risk being totally submerged in water by 2070, as sea levels continue to rise. In preparation for this outcome, the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has proposed a gradual resettlement program, which would see the population of Kiribati slowly relocated to neighboring islands such as New Zealand (Bedford, 2009).

Environmental refugees are a particularly difficult problem for governments and policy-makers to cope with due to the variety of environmental disasters that can have dramatic impacts on the forced migration of people. For example in Bangladesh, rising sea-levels and resulting floods have caused many people to flee across the border to India. On the other hand, in the Sudan, droughts have reduced sources of water for consumption and traditional agriculture, leaving many people without sufficient access to food or water and increasing conflict over these resources.  Governments must be able to foresee and respond to these environmental issues, requiring time, money and organization.  Additionally, as noted above, many of the states most gravely affected by environmental disasters and resulting migration are in the developing world, meaning they may lack resources to adequately address the detrimental effects of these crises.


Next: Pull Factors