The issue of environmental refugees has been given a lot of attention in recent times by the media, policy makers and academics. The main area of apprehension is whether environmental change will cause large number of helpless people in developing countries to be displaced because of lack of adequate opportunities arising due to climate change and depletion of natural resources. In fact there are several academic publications and international conferences on the subject that highlight the issue but well documented instances of environmentally generated migration has been mainly restricted to severe events such as Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.
Man made events such as the establishment of the Three Gorges Dam in China is also said to have displaced large number of people. The consequences of small scale and pervasive forms of environmental changes such as soil degradation and droughts limit the ability to make prediction about the extent and nature of potential levels of displacement of human beings under conditions of accelerated environmental change. However, research has revealed that environmentally led migration is usually temporary and involves comparatively lesser distances in variance with apprehensions about mass exodus of refugees across international borders (Castles, 2002).
According to Myers (1997), natural and man made disasters associated with environmental change are forcing millions of people to leave their homeland. However this does not entail that environmental issues always result directly in displacement of people. Instead, environmental pressures lead to land impoverishment, competition and encroachment on areas that are ecologically weak and thus lead to the impoverishment of that land. In turn, such events result in ethnic and political conflict that can lead to violence and wars, which often proves to be the immediate reason for flight. Most environmental refugees eventually land in slums or camps that are set for internally displaced people in the country of their origin.
However millions leave their country and look for refuge in neighboring states where they could cause more environmental complexities and conflict. But, according to Myers (1997), many amongst them make attempts to gain entry into developed nations of North America and Europe. Therefore it can be said that the issue of environmental refugees ‘promises to rank as one of the foremost human crises of our times’ (Myers, 1997p.185). Developed countries have begun to restrict entry to such refugees but experts feel that it will be practically impossible to check the rising flood of environmental refugees.
In fact refugee camps and shanty towns that are established with the entry of these refuges will become breeding ground for civil disorders, social upheavals and violent activities. Myers asserts that there will have to be substantial allocation of outlays to meet the cost of the resulting pandemic diseases and situations arising from food, water and energy deficits. Such developments could further threaten national identities and social cohesion resulting in civil disorders and ethnic tensions (Myers and Kent, 1995).
However such arguments have been rejected by Black (2001), who considers such situations as creations of an apocalyptic vision and a result of neo Malthusian approaches that are based upon questionable assumptions. Moreover, such arguments construct migrants and refugees as being threats to security. Black (2001) has claimed that there is no evidence that can substantiate about environmental change leading directly to massive flow of refugees, especially those that flow into developed nations. He views the focus on environmental refugees as being a distraction from the core issues of conflict resolution and development.
The United Nations does not officially recognize the word environmental refugee and the term has been significantly contested amongst scholars. The lead amongst such critics is taken by Black (2001) who argues that there are no such people as environmental refugees. He felt that environmental issues played a role in forced migration but they are not always closely associated with economic and political factors. If the environmental factors are focused in seclusion, one does not get a clear perspective of the specific situations in which people have been displaced because it is known that people do not leave their homeland just for a single reason.
Black (2001) has also stated that there is no basis to indicate that environmental change directly results in the creation of millions of refugees, as is commonly featured in the literature. The available data on refugees and their movements are not exhaustive or very authentic; primarily because there are so many varied categories and definitions in the context of environmental refugees. Black (2001) has categorically held that the focus placed on issues of environmental refugees by different entities and on different platforms is primarily an attempt by such entities to distract the attention of concerned people from the other more pertinent central issues pertaining to conflict resolution and development (Reuveny, 2007).
In focusing on the idea that environmental change results in large flows of migrants and refugees, Myers (1997) held that the main reasons for environmental displacement were factors relating to water shortage, salinization of irrigated lands, deforestation, desertification and depletion of bio-diversity. All these factors are associated with rapid growth of population in underdeveloped and developing countries along with global climate change. Such changes at the macro level result in pressure being imposed on land and other natural resources and also worsen the impact of extreme weather conditions, natural calamities and man made disasters such as those that occurred at Chernobyl and Bhopal (Myers and Kent, 1995).
On the basis of such observations, Myers has held that millions of people are at risk of being displaced because of factors such as deforestation, desertification, rising water levels etc. However Myer has not substantiated his claims with any data on people that have been actually displaced because of such happenings. Instead, as pointed out by his critics, the links that he has made are more out of a common sense approach because it is obvious that if water levels increase or forests are depleted, people in those areas have to mover to other places (Lee, 2001).
Black (1998) made exhaustive studies in this regard and concluded that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that such happenings lead to large scale displacement. He argued that in some cases, the causes that appeared to precipitate the exodus were themselves doubtful. He claims that desertification is now evident from new techniques such as satellite imaging and is in most cases a cyclical phenomenon associated with the pattern of rainfall in the given areas. He also argued that migration in areas such as the Sahel zone was primarily undertaken in keeping with a coping strategy that has been used by people for hundreds of years and this too, is a cyclical instead of a permanent feature. Thus migration is an essential characteristic of the economic and social structures of any region, instead of being a response to environmental change.
In contrast, Black (1998) views issues such as reducing water supply and rising sea levels as the real environmental issues that need to be acted upon. He has categorically asserted that there is very little evidence about large scale permanent displacement of people because of such factors alone. William Wood, who was the official Geographer in the US Department of State held that, “Anti-immigrant rhetoric and apocalyptic forecasts of environmental disaster may also be obfuscating a rational policy discussion. Indeed, focussing attention primarily on such a long-term and worldwide phenomenon could mask the more immediate reality of many dispersed, and localised ecological crises and the fact that there is usually no simple relationship between environmental causes and societal effects” (Wood, 2001, p.103).
It thus appears that common links and normal forecasting do not add much to the understandings in this regard. It is crucial to examine specific instances and most experts that work in this area adopt the same strategy. Myers and Kent (1995) have discussed examples of countries such as China, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia and without delving too much into details their arguments are mainly deductive. The ague for instance that country X may have environmental complexities as also a large number of refugees and migrants. Thus there has to be an underlying relationship. This method has its own complications if applied to make future forecasts.
For instance, they reveal that a country such as Nigeria experiences rapid growth in population and stands chances of facing future problems related to water pollution, soil erosion and desertification. Hence there is likelihood of mass migration taking place from this country. However despite such a situation Nigeria has not experienced much exodus of its population; rather it attracted large number of people from other regions during its oil boom years of the 1970s. Hence they believe that it is not correct to predict on the basis of weak evidence (Geisler et al, 2001).
El-Hinnawi has defined environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat…because of a marked environmental disruption…that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life” (El-Hinnawi, 1985, p4). He observed three categories of environmental refugees:
* People that are temporarily displaced because of environmental factors such as earthquakes and cyclones.
* People that are permanently displaced because of permanent change in their habitat, in terms of developments such as dams or lakes
* People that are permanently displaced because the original habitat in which they live cannot provide for their basic needs any more.
According to Jacobson (1988), “environmental refugees have become the single largest class of displaced persons in the world” (Jacobson, 1988, p.39) and he held that there were more than ten million environmental refugees in the world as in the late 1980s. Myers (1997) suggested that in 1996 there were about 25 million environmental refugees in the world. However it is very difficult to collect accurate data in this regard because most of such figures have not been empirically examined and hence the given figures can only be treated with suspicion.
Most theorists agree that there are mainly four categories that lead to environmental migration, although they are all inter connected to other issues that are not associated with environmental reasons. First is the human induced environmental change whereby single events bring large scale harm to entire societies, which results in environmental migration. This changes also induced long terms land degradations such as desertification. Examples of environmental migration due to these factors include the large scale movement of people because of degradation of agriculture lands in Mexico and the extreme and unjustified use of water resources in the area of the Aral Sea (Leighton-Schwartz, 1996).
Environmental catastrophes and natural disasters also lead to migration, although on a temporary basis. Scholars have also suggested that natural disasters can occur because of human actions; increasing population and population distribution could result in higher occurrences of natural disasters and a larger effect of such disasters. For instance, huge tall buildings in earthquake zones raise the possibilities of severe consequences in the case of a calamity (Stranks, 1977).
Environmental migration can also be triggered by military and political disturbances and can also entail the systematic and deliberate destruction of the environment in being an instrument of war or of a policy that believes in genocide. Examples in this regard are the deforestation policy adopted by the US during the Vietnam War and the systematic demolition of the marshlands in South Iraq by the government from 1991 onwards that led to the fleeing of over 350,000 Marsh Arabs to the south west of Iran in becoming internally displaced people (Francke et al, 1996).
Socio economic factors also impact environmental issues, in terms of the distribution of natural resources. When natural resources are scarce, inequitable distribution of resources takes place whereby they are taken over by the stronger members of society and the weaker members have to move away to other places in search of a livelihood. Forced resettlement of people also takes place due to other factors such as people being displaced due to the establishment of development projects such as dams.
These projects have strong socio economic impact on people. It is believed by some that environmental degradation could be the root cause of conflicts that result in refugee movements. Lind (2001) has quoted the previous defense minister of Rwanda as saying “environmental causes of major significance in this context (of the Rwanda conflict) are natural resources linked and are due to population pressure, to decline of agricultural land per family land-holding, to soil degradation and to shortage of firewood” (Lind, 2001, p.127).
Homer-Dixon (1999) has explained that scarcity of natural resources which is further enhanced by environmental degradation and the inequitable distribution of population growth and natural resources, results in higher levels of poverty, institutional collapses, human displacement and increased poverty. Thus, although many examples have been put forth about the so called environmental refugees as found in the literature, such arguments do not have much strength because the given academic explanations are not based on logic and facts (Black, 2001). Viewed realistically, it is evident that migration is generally related with other factors such as politics, environmental management, poverty and land issues.
Lonergan (1998) has said that migration relates to “an extremely varied and complex manifestation and component of equally complex economic, social, cultural, demographic, and political processes operating at the local, regional, national and international levels” (Lonergan, 1998, p.149). It is very well recognized that people will never move from their homes for only a single reason, including the occurrence of drought alone. Migration is in this context an inevitable and routine factor of livelihood and occurs on a regular basis as has been done for centuries. It cannot be necessarily inferred that it occurs because of deteriorating environmental conditions (Findley et al, 994).
As suggested by Black (2001), “this is not to say that environmental change – or indeed the existence of high risk environments with highly variable climatic or other conditions – are not factors behind large-scale (and sometimes involuntary) migration” (Black, 2001, p.204). It is very difficult to make a confirmed estimate of the number of environmental refugees but that does not mean that the category of such people is increasing. It is however correct to say that some sections of the population across the world are becoming increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes due to other reasons such as population growth, inequality, poverty, economic insufficiency and resource limitations (Lonergan, 1998). Additionally, in view of the current efforts to bring about economic development, the instances of environmental deterioration result because of mankind’s failure to maintain practices of efficient environmental management as being part of efforts for economic development.
For instance, there is the question of climate change induced by human beings and the effect it will have on the increase in sea levels and the flooding of low lying coastal areas. In this context, Myers (1996) has forecasted that the increase in sea levels alone will result in over 200 million environmental refugees by the year 2050. Again, these projections are not based on authentic data or evidence and there is no identification of populations in any specific areas that have been made to relocate from places that have had experience of increase in sea levels. It is also true that migration is amongst a number of potential responses resulting from increase in flooding because such projections have not considered the role of human adaptability to changed circumstances (Francke et al, 1996).
It is concluded that there is no empirical or theoretical basis or data to indicate a strong relationship amongst migration and environmental degradation and conflict. Consequently, there has been lot of inconsistency to be clarified and questions to be answered in the context of the entire issue pertaining to migration and environment. The subject is quite complex and has not been given the well deserved attention to isolate it from other exceedingly interrelated matters.
In spite of such a situation, it is correct to say that the numbers of displaced people are expected to increase because of factors that are inclusive of the element of environmental degradation. Moreover, underdeveloped nations are more vulnerable to the vagaries of environmental change, as compared to richer nations, which is mainly because they have lesser resources to counter the resulting adversities. Under the circumstances, countries in the north may find themselves under increased pressure to give support in this regard, irrespective of whether such support is to prevent the displacement from happening or reacting to such happenings. It is thus required of policy makers to show greater concern towards environmental degradation and scarcity of resources amidst efforts to develop activities for humanitarian assistance, which also includes forced migration.
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