Climate change refugees need protection, UN told
INCREASING global temperatures and land degradation are forcing more people to migrate, creating a wave of environmental refugees needing protection, says Janos Bogardi, a professor at the United Nations University.
On Wednesday he urged the UN to recognise that droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes and other environmental factors — many of which are worsening because of climate change — have played a role in the migration of millions of people worldwide.
Accurate, comprehensive numbers on environmental migrants are hard to come by, Bogardi says, since migrants often leave home for a variety of reasons. Still, the UN refugee agency estimated in 2002 that there were about 24 million people worldwide who had fled floods, famine and other poor environmental conditions.
A report from 2005 by Norman Myers, a professor of environmental science at Duke University, estimated that by 2010 about 50 million people will have migrated for environmental reasons.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 displaced more than 2 million people, many of whom are still in refugee camps, according to a 2006 report from the UN’s office for tsunami recovery.
Bogardi, director of the university’s Institute for Environment and Human Security based in Bonn, Germany, says many in the international community are wary of addressing environmental migration because they fear the vague term might water down current UN protections for refugees. ‘‘ If we overload the (UN convention), we are weakening one of the strongest tools for protecting refugees.’’
Bogardi said environmental factors often lie at the root of more obvious causes of migration. Competition for scarce resources may end in violent conflict, for instance. Overmining or excessive deforestation — driven by tremendous need in impoverished countries — may result in land degradation and thus forced migration, he said.
Bogardi suggests that either the UN should adopt a new convention aimed solely at protecting environmental migrants, or that provisions for such migrants should be included in international environmental treaties. He proposes three broad categories to distinguish among people who leave their homes: those influenced only in part by worsening environmental conditions, those who leave to escape the worst effects of a poor environment, and those forced to flee disaster.
Bogardi says that, like other migrants, environmental migrants most often flee the developing world for richer countries. But he adds that no country is exempt from the negative effects of climate change.
‘‘ Vulnerability is with us all,’’ he says, noting that more than 75,000 people are thought to have died from the 2003 heat wave in Western Europe. He also points to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the US Gulf Coast in August 2005, temporarily displacing 1.5 million people. Estimates indicate as many as 300,000 of those displaced will never return home, he adds.
But developing countries are the least able to cope with environmental change and should receive the most help. AP
Tsunami: Two million people displaced, and many still live in camps