October 11, 2005

Environmental Decay May Prompt Refugee Surge

OSLO -- A deteriorating environment could drive about 50 million people from their homes by 2010 and the world needs to define a new category of "environmental" refugee, a U.N. study said on Tuesday.

Desertification, rising sea levels, flooding and storms linked to climate change might displace hundreds of millions of people, according to the report by the U.N. University's Institute for Environment and Human Security.

"We're ringing a kind of scientific and political alarm bell," Janos Bogardi, head of the Bonn-based Institute, told Reuters. "We need to act."

He said the estimated figure of 50 million environmental refugees -- roughly the population of Ukraine or Italy -- was in some ways a worst case that would demand billions of dollars in extra aid.

Still, he estimated that about 20 million people were already displaced by problems linked to a damaged environment, ranging from eroded farmland to polluted water supplies.

Such upheavals already affected millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Asia, he said.

The Institute urged acceptance of the idea that "environmental refugees" -- people displaced by environmental degradation -- would be eligible for food, tools, shelter, medical care and grants in line with political refugees fleeing war or oppression at home.

Bogardi said that victims of slow-moving environmental catastrophes were too often dismissed as people moving for purely economic reasons, who are usually denied refugee status.

Among threats, the Gobi desert in China is expanding by more than 3,900 sq mile a year. The low-lying Pacific island state of Tuvalu has struck a deal for New Zealand to accept its 11,600 population if seas rise.

"This is a highly complex issue, with global organizations already overwhelmed by the demands of conventionally recognized refugees," Hans van Ginkel, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and rector of the U.N. University, said in the report.

"We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of refugee," he said.

Americans who fled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, for instance, were driven by a mix of environmental degradation and poverty caused by their failed crops.

Costs of coping with "environmental refugees" could be huge.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates that it has helped 50 million conventional refugees to restart their lives since it was set up in 1950. For 2005, it has received about $980 million in funds, mainly from governments led by the United States.