By Robert Bolognese 07-28-2000

There is ample scientific evidence to support the proposition that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate that has never been experienced in such a short period of time. This accelerated warming will have enormous impact on the inhabitants of this planet resulting in food and water shortages, desertification and flooding, extreme weather patterns and the extinction of a variety of different species, which will ultimately lead to a large displacement of the human population. While some uncertainty remains in the timing of these events, that has not stopped the push for decisive action by a variety of organizations, such as the United Nations.[1] The message, however, has been about preventing or slowing down this climate change process, which fails to address human displacement . Such efforts may work to slow down the process, but the evidence shows that the process has already begun and we can no longer avoid certain negative impacts. Based on past experience, we can expect a sizeable emergency involving human displacement every sixteen (16) months- and a massive displacement every two (2) years.[2] In the past fifteen (15) years, there have been seven (7) events which have resulted in displacement of more than 1.5 million people according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees ("UNHCR").[3] We are seeing the number of migrants growing worldwide, with an increasing number fleeing due to loss of livelihoods caused by environmental conditions.[4] According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as many people are forced to leave their homes due to some environmental disaster and natural resource scarcity as flee political oppression, religious persecution and ethnic troubles.[5] A growing consensus submits that migration is most likely to increase substantially in the future and, therefore, there is a need to address this issue now.[6] Unfortunately, at this time, there is a little official recognition by governments, international agencies, or laws acknowledging that an environmental refugee problem exists or is imminent. As a result, there is a need to establish codified law to protect this growing group of refugees, and the failure to act will have cataclysmic effects in a short period of time.

Environmental Refugees

The Definition

The term "environmental refugee" was introduced by Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the 1970s and entered into common usage following a 1985 UN Environmental Programme policy paper written by E. El-Hinnawi titled "Environmental Refugees".[7] In that paper, El-Hinnawi defined environmental refugees as: "Those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life (sic). By 'environmental disruption' in this definition is meant any physical, chemical, and/or biological changes in the ecosystem (or resource base) that render it, temporarily or permanently unsuitable to support human life."[8] Different scholars have offered a definition of environmental refugees. In his paper with the World Watch Institute titled, Environmental Refugees: A yardstick of habitability, J.L. Jacobson identified three types of environmental refugees: (i) those displaced temporarily due to local disruption such as an avalanche or earthquake; (ii) those who migrate because environmental degradation has undermined their livelihood or poses unacceptable risk to health; and (iii) those who resettle because land degradation has resulted in desertification or because of other permanent and untenable changes in their habitat.[9] Norman Myers, a leading scholar on this subject, defines environmental refugees as "people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their erstwhile homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification and other environmental problems. In their desperation, they feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries; many are internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi-permanent if not permanent basis, having little hope of a foreseeable return."[10] Scholars of the United Nations University define environmental refugees as: "people precipitously fleeing their place of residence because of an environmental stressor regardless of whether or not they cross international border."[11] Other scholars have included environmental refugees in a broad definition of forced migrants

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