Environmental Crisis to Spur Mass Migration

Posted by admin on Oct 9th, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 (IPS) – As climate change, sea-level rise, earthquakes and floods threaten countries such as Bangladesh, Tuvalu, Vietnam and Tajikistan, the Tokyo-based U.N. University (UNU) warns that by 2050, some 200 million people will be displaced by environmental problems. This estimated figure is roughly equal to two-thirds of the current population in the United States or the combined population of Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands. “All indicators show that we are dealing with a major emerging global problem,” says Janos Bogardi, director of UNU’s Institute on the Environment and Human Security.

The issue of migration, he points out, represents the most profound expression of the inter-linkage between the environment and human security.

Unlike the traditional economically-motivated migrants of today, the environmentally-motivated migration is expected to feature poorer people, more women, children and elderly, from more desperate environmental situations, and possibly less able to move far.

A group of experts who did a two-year research study points out that existing human trafficking networks would gain strength and new ones could emerge as environmental deterioration, climate change and disaster uproot millions of people.

In Bangladesh, women with children, whose husbands either died at sea during cyclone Sidr or are away as temporary labour migrants, are easy prey for traffickers and end up in prostitution networks or in forced labour in India.

Bangladesh is also often considered “the country that could be most affected by climate change” due to projected sea-level rise and flooding from melting Himalayan glaciers. It is also heavily affected by sudden disasters, such as cyclones.

According to preliminary findings, Bangladesh may lose up to one-fifth of its surface area due to rising sea level. And this scenario is likely to occur, if the sea level rises by one metre and no dyke enforcement measures are taken.

Asked if there should be an international treaty to protect the new breed of environmental migrants, Bogardi told IPS: “Yes, there should be a convention or set of treaties and formal recognition of people displaced or migrating due to environmental causes.”

However, he said, such a treaty should be independent of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

The new refugees will also come from countries such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Palau: small islands in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth due to sea level rise triggered by climate change.

“An entirely different question is how to deal with the disappearance of a state? This is a legal question and international lawyers have already been contemplating ‘solutions’ like governments [in permanent] exile or the model of the Sovereign Order of Malta,” said Bogardi.

“While the submergence of an entire state is unique, we expect that the humanitarian [and economic] challenge [measured by the number of people affected] will be much greater in the deltas of Bangladesh, the Nile River, Mekong River or even the Rhine and Mississippi Rivers, than in small island states,” he added.

A three-day conference on environmental migrants, described as the largest ever conference on this issue, is expected to conclude next weekend in Bonn, Germany.

Hosted by UNU, the conference, which is being attended by officials and experts from about 80 countries, also serves as a platform to introduce the fledgling Climate Change Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA).

Meanwhile, addressing the high-level segment of the General Assembly sessions last month, the vice president of Palau, Elias Camsek Chin, told member states they must be guided by a single consideration: “Saving those small island states that today live in danger of disappearance.”

Palau and members of the Pacific Islands Forum, including Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Micronesia, “are deeply concerned about the growing threat which climate change poses not only to our sustainable development but also to our future survival,” Chin said.

“This is a security matter which has gone un-addressed,” he warned the General Assembly.

James Michel, the president of Seychelles, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, said: “It is not right that small island states have to run the risk of being submerged by rising sea levels, whilst some nations refuse to even acknowledge their responsibility for the high levels of environmental pollution which are now threatening the planet’s resources.”

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong told the General Assembly his country has only several decades before its islands become uninhabitable. The 100,000 people in his country must one day move elsewhere, he said.

Asked if any of the countries neighbouring these small island states have expressed their willingness to accommodate the new migrants, Bogardi told IPS: “There is no recognition [yet] of environmentally [forced] migrants, hence there is no specific expression of obligation to let in migrants who migrate due to sea level rise, frequent storm surges or other such environmental events.”

“It is one of our main goals to establish and have accepted three categories of environmental migrants [namely, environmentally motivated migrants, environmentally forced migrants and environmental emergency migrants],” he said.

The latter category of environmental emergency migrants would account for those displaced by natural hazard events like earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc.

Bogardi said the frequently reported Tuvalu-New Zealand deal on migrants does not refer to accepting migrants for environmental reasons but rather New Zealand providing a labour migration quota for people from Tuvalu through its Pacific Access Category migration programme.

Asked about the possible extinction of some of the low-lying small island states, Bogardi said some small island states could face “disappearance” in the case of more extreme sea level rise than expected in benchmark reports such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).

Even if sea level rise exceeds expectations, he pointed out, the process is likely to be gradual over decades.

“Increasing sea level would threaten coastal aquifers, thus feasible life and economic activities would diminish much before the islands would disappear,” he said. Consequently, he added, “we expect migratory trends to emerge” or be stronger than at present in the years and decades to come.

“In summary, we expect depopulation as an ultimate coping measure to be implemented gradually before the physical disappearance of those islands. Time scale is decades, if not centuries.”

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