Should people be forced to leave their homeland because of the development of large dams, mine failings, petroleum pollution or flooding caused by illegal deforestation be categorized as environmental refugees?

The origin of climate change-induced migration discourse date back to the 1980s. Environmental activists and scientists at the time argued that unchecked environmental and climate change could lead to mass displacement of people. Fast forward to the back end of the last decade, the phenomenon of climate change-induced migration had entered the arena of high politics. Since then, the term has been framed in the language of security.

So who are these environmental refugees? Environmental refugees have been categorized as persons who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their traditional homeland because of environmental factors of unusual scope. These include droughts, desertification, deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages among many others.

Causes of migration are often extremely complex and context-specific. Early researchers believed that there was little evidence to support the view that demographic pressure was at the root of many population movements. Further arguments suggested that environmental and climate change was only one factor among many that drives migration. Likewise, they equated this to a complex socio-economic and political context

The degradation narrative highlights the scarcity of renewable resources. These include freshwater, cropland, and forests induced in large parts by population growth. As a result, migration and violent intrastate conflicts have emerged in many parts of the developing world. The cost of inaction to climate change-induced migration has been a recurrent theme in negotiations. This has been highlighted by activists, NGOs, developing countries and small island nations.

Climate change is already affecting millions of people across the world and especially the most vulnerable communities. Extreme meteorological phenomena indicate increased material damage and population displacement. By 2018, around 17.2 million people had been internally displaced according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

A nexus has been established between population growth and migration. Here people are forced into marginal lands which in turn lead to environmental damage hence the scarcity of resources and later poverty. Eventually, they are forced to migrate yet again and in the long run, this stimulates ethnic conflicts or urban unrest elsewhere. A typical example of this was witnessed in the Darfur crisis which is attributed to conflicts between pastoralists and sedentary farmers. Climate refugees have since migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions increasing the potential of conflicts

With climate change intensifying, environmental refugees have felt the need to seek sustenance elsewhere. This is regardless to their own countries or beyond and whether on a semi-permanent or permanent basis. In cases of extreme natural events like drought, storms and floods, whether or not people are forced to migrate permanently from their homes usually depends on pre-existing social relations(who is most vulnerable) and post-disaster responses (what kind of aid/relief is provided and who is entitled to it).

With a large group of actors working on the growing crisis of environmental refugees, one will be entitled to ask why this category of refugees is not addressed under the refugee convention. Should they enjoy the same rights as refugees?

After the Second World War, there was a report published by the UNDP on a study on human security. This report sought to shift the object referent of security discourse away from the nation-state towards the individual. Human security discourses hide different problems, not only because they tended to disempower people involved but also because human security was turning into a strategy to govern at distance keeping people in places.

Statistics from the UNHCR indicate that there are slightly more than 20 million legally designated refugees. On the other hand, there are approximately 21 million people who have been deemed to have fled their homes because of the sudden occurrence of weather hazards. Although there is a debate on the authenticity of these numbers, migrants fleeing unbearable weather conditions do not enjoy the legal protection afforded to refugees.

As is the case with refugees, they have a right to asylum and are often assigned designated places and afforded certain privileges. The environmental refugees on the other hand due to lack of an organized system will move where they can and not where they should. With the growing numbers of climate change-induced refugees, potential cases of conflicts might arise from their destinations and often from communities along the migration routes.

Nowadays it is almost impossible not to see climate refugees given how frequently they appear in policy reports, documentaries, charity advertisements, and testimonials for political campaigns. If this is the case, why don’t we grant them refugee status?

In addressing the situation, the UNHCR argued that there have not been enough organizational efforts towards this course. They further highlighted the lack of sufficient resources needed to combat this growing concern. But with increasing numbers of climate disasters, the international community can ignore this crisis for so long. We on the other hand have to create more awareness and it is high time the term refugee is revisited.

Currently, climate mitigation and adaptation policies have fallen short of addressing core issues related to climate change. The USAID, the Green Climate Fund, UNHCR, and other international actors should redirect their efforts in the development and assistance to include unfolding climate crisis. Environmental refugees should be prioritized because neglecting them would only increase anti-immigrant, nationalist, and xenophobic incidents. This might have a spillover in limiting refugee protection rather than expanding them.

                                                                                                                    Yusuf Esmail Abdallah


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Buhaug, H., Benjaminsen, T. A., Sjaastad, E., & Magnus, O. T. (2015). Climate variability, food production shock, and violent conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. Environmental research letters, 10, 2-12.

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Hartmann, B. (2010). Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of political discourse. Journal of International Development, 22, 233-246.

Seter, H. (2016). Connecting climate variability and conflict: Implication for empirical testing. Political geography, 53, 1-9.



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