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Environmental decay may prompt refugee surge-study

October 11, 2005

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – 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.




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