Environmental migrant

Environmental migrant

Environmental migrant refers to the people who are purportedly forced to migrate from or flee their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment, which is held to include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons. This 'type' of migration has yet to be proven[clarification needed][1], in that it has yet to be defined in a way that allows such migrants to be distinguished from economic migrants or political refugees. The term 'environmental migrant' is used somewhat interchangeably with a range of similar terms, such as 'environmental refugee', 'climate refugee', 'climate migrant', although the distinction between these terms is contested. Despite problems of definition and an absence of clear-cut evidence, 'environmental migration' has increased in currency as an issue of concern in the 2000s as policy-makers, environmental and social scientists attempt to conceptualise the potential societal ramifications of climate change and general environmental degradation.


History of the concept

Beginning with the use of the phrase 'environmental refugee' by Lester Brown in 1976,[2] there has been a proliferation in the use of the term, and later 'environmental migrant' and a cluster of similar categories, including "forced environmental migrant", "environmentally motivated migrant", "climate refugee", "climate change refugee", "environmentally displaced person (EDP)", "disaster refugee", "environmental displacee", "eco-refugee", "ecologically displaced person" and "environmental-refugee-to-be (ERTB)".[3] The differences between these terms are less important than what they have in common: they all suggest that there is a determinable relationship between environmental drivers and human migration which is analytically useful, policy-relevant and possibly grounds for the expansion of refugee law.

The International Organisation for Migration proposes the following definition for environmental migrants[4]:

"Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad."

Predictions and attempts to enumerate 'environmental migrants/ refugees'

There have been a number of attempts over the decades to enumerate 'environmental migrants/ refugees'. Jodi Jacobson (1988) is cited as the first researcher to enumerate the issue, stating that there were already up to 10 million ‘Environmental Refugees’. Drawing on ‘worst case scenarios’ about sea-level rise, she argued that all forms of ‘Environmental Refugees’ would be six times as numerous as political refugees. (1988: 38).[5] By 1989, Mustafa Tolba, Executive Director of UNEP, was claiming that 'as many as 50 million people could become environmental refugees' if the world did not act to support sustainable development (Tolba 1989: 25).[6] In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 1990: 20) declared that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be migration, ‘with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought’ (Warner & Laczko: 2008: 235).[7] In the mid-1990s, Norman Myers became the most prominent proponent of this ‘maximalist’ school (Suhrke 1993), stating that there were 25 million environmental refugees in the mid-1990s, and claiming that this figure could double by 2010, with an upper limit of 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1997).[8] Myers argued that the causes of environmental displacement would include desertification, lack of water, salination of irrigated lands and the depletion of bio-diversity. He also hypothesised that displacement would amount to 30m in China, 30m in India, 15m in Bangladesh, 14m in Egypt, 10m in other delta areas and coastal zones, 1m in island states, and with otherwise agriculturally displaced people totalling 50m (Myers & Kent 1995) by 2050.[9] More recently, Myers has suggested that the figure by 2050 might be as high as 250 million (Christian Aid 2007: 6).[10]

Map showing where natural disasters caused/aggravated by global warming will occur, and thus where environmental refugees will be created

These claims have gained significant currency, with the most common claims being that 150-200 million people will be climate change refugees by 2050. Variations of this claim have been made in influential reports on climate change by the IPCC (Brown 2008: 11)[11] and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern et al. 2006: 3),[12] as well as by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth,[13] Greenpeace Germany (Jakobeit and Methmann 2007)[14] and Christian Aid;[10] and inter-governmental organisations such as the Council of Europe,[15] UNESCO,[16] IOM (Brown 2008) and UNHCR.[17]

Despite these attempts at enumeration, there is in fact a dearth of empirical evidence to support the concept of 'environmental migration’. Norman Myers is perhaps the most widely cited, and the authority of his claims is often attributed to the fact that his chief contribution to the field (Myers & Kent 1995)[9] used over 1000 sources.[18] However, on visiting his bibliography, it becomes apparent that of these sources, the vast majority constitute nothing more than a rather desultory overview of environmental science that has no obvious connection with discussions of societal impacts or migration. Indeed, only 121 sources have even a remote connection to the broad themes of migration, refugee or population displacement. Only 25 of these sources discuss the migration-environment linkage explicitly, and it is worth noting that this number is little different than any other paper on ‘Environmental migration’, and consists chiefly of isolated case study material. Vikram Kolmannskog has stated that Myers’ work can be ‘criticized for being inconsistent, impossible to check and failing to take proper account of opportunities to adapt’ (2008: 9).[19] Furthermore, Myers himself has acknowledged that his figures are based upon ‘heroic extrapolation’ (Brown 2008: 12).[11] More generally, Black has argued that there is ‘surprisingly little scientific evidence’ that indicates that the world is ‘filling-up with environmental refugees’ (1998: 23).[20] Indeed, Francois Gemenne has stated that: 'When it comes to predictions, figures are usually based on the number of people living in regions at risk, and not on the number of people actually expected to migrate. Estimates do not account for adaptation strategies [or] different levels of vulnerability' (Gemenne 2009: 159).[21]


The International Organisation for Migration proposes three types of environmental migrants:

  • Environmental emergency migrants: people who flee temporarily due to an environmental disaster or sudden environmental event. (Examples: someone forced to leave due to hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, etc.)
  • Environmental forced migrants: people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions. (Example: someone forced to leave due to a slow deterioration of their environment such as deforestation, coastal deterioration, etc.)
  • Environmental motivated migrants also known as environmentally induced economic migrants: people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems. (Example: someone who leaves due to declining crop productivity caused by desertification)

Conceptual problems and criticism

Much of the literature produced on 'environmental migration' assumes the nexus to be self-evident. The category is both emotive and commonsensical, and therefore has widespread currency in the media and among policy makers, non-social scientists and neo-Malthusianist social scientists. However, there is no evidence that the concept can be used to achieve generalisable truths. In brief, this is because the degree to which any given environmental factor is meaningful at the societal level - let alone to any specific aspect of human activity, such as migration - is entirely conditional on socio-economic and political contingencies. In other words, it is impossible to isolate a single environmental factor as an independent variable from which to deduce its impact on a particular (or general) form of social outcome in any way that will be generalisably useful; the relationship will be different depending on circumstance.

There has been little work that has bolstered the conceptual integrity of the concept. The concept lacks an agreed definition, and as a consequence, also lacks clear-cut evidence. Predictive models have therefore proved elusive, despite high-profile 'scoping studies', leading to a wide range of estimates, such as that conducted by the European Commission funded EACH-FOR project. Research[22] conducted in areas of 'environmental degradation' which attempted to demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between migration and environmental degradation (including climate change) have so far lacked falsifiability, and have been marked by an absence of counterfactual evidence that has made it impossible to draw any generalisable conclusions from the findings.

Political and legal perspectives

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) expects the scale of global migration to rise as a result of accelerated climate change.[23] It therefore recommends policymakers around the world to take a proactive stance on the matter.[24]

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has argued that the people who will be forced to move due to climate change currently have no adequate recognition in international law.[25] The EJF contends that a new multilateral legal instrument is required to specifically address the needs of 'climate refugees' in order to confer protection to those fleeing environmental degradation and climate change.[26] They have also asserted that additional funding is needed to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change. Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan have argued for the use of the term 'climate exiles' and for international agreements to provide them political and legal rights, including citizenship in other countries, bearing in mind those countries' responsibilities and capabilities.[27][28][29]

In some cases, climate change may lead to conflict arising between countries that as a result of flooding or other conditions produce a large number of refugees, and bordering countries that build fences to keep out these refugees. The Bangladesh - India border is largely separated via a fence, and case studies suggest the possibility of violent conflict arising due to people fleeing from areas suffering from destruction of arable land. Current migration has already resulted in low-scale conflicts.[30]

Popular culture

German artist Hermann Josef Hack's World Climate Refugee Camp in Hannover displaying 600 small climate refugee tents.

Despite concerns regarding its capacity to say anything meaningful about the complex relationship between environmental drivers and human migration, the notion of 'environmental migrant', and particularly 'climate refugee', has gained traction in popular culture. A documentary entitled Climate Refugees has been released, which engages uncritically with the neo-malthusian understandings of the climate change-migration nexus. "Climate Refugees" is an Official Selection for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.[31]

Since 2007, German artist Hermann Josef Hack has shown his World Climate Refugee Camp in the centers of various European cities. The model camp, made of roughly 1000 miniature tents, is a public art intervention that depicts the social impacts of climate change.[32]

See also

External links


  1. ^ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704658704576274470237832478.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
  2. ^ Brown, L., Mcgrath, P., and Stokes, B., (1976). twenty two dimensions of the population problem, Worldwatch Paper 5, Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute
  3. ^ Boano, C., Zetter, R., and Morris, T., (2008). Environmentally Displaced People: Understanding the linkages between environmental change, livelihoods and forced migration, Refugee Studies Centre Policy Brief No.1 (RSC: Oxford), pg.4
  4. ^ http://www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/about_iom/en/council/94/MC_INF_288.pdf
  5. ^ Jacobson, J.L. (1988). Environmental Refugees: a Yardstick of Habitability, Worldwatch paper 86, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC
  6. ^ Tolba, M. K. (1989). Our biological heritage under siege. Bioscience 39, 725–728
  7. ^ Warner K and Laczko F. (2008). ‘Migration, Environment and Development: New Directions for Research’, in Chamie J, Dall’Oglio L (eds.), International Migration and Development, Continuing the Dialogue: Legal and Policy Perspectives, IOM
  8. ^ Myers, N. (1997). ‘Environmental Refugees’, Population and Environment 19(2): 167-82
  9. ^ a b Myers, N. and Kent, J. (1995). Environmental Exodus: an Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena, (Climate Institute: Washington DC)
  10. ^ a b Christian Aid (2007). ‘Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis’ (CA: London)
  11. ^ a b Brown, O (2008). ‘Migration and Climate Change’, IOM Migration Research Series, paper no.31, www.iom.int
  12. ^ Stern, N. (Ed.) (2006). The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  13. ^ Friends of the Earth, ‘A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees, Fact Sheet Four: Predictions of Climate Refugees to 2050’ (FOTE: London), 2007: 10
  14. ^ Jakobeit, C., and Methmann, C. (2007). Klimafluchtlinge – Die Verleugnete Katastrophe, Greenpeace, Hamburg
  15. ^ Parliamentary Assembly Doc. 11084, 23 Oct 2006, The Problem of Environmental Refugees: 1
  16. ^ UNESCO (2007), (http://portal.unesco.org/shs/en/ev.php-URL_ID=9997&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html#environment),
  17. ^ UNHCR (2002), ‘A critical time for the environment’, Refugees No.127. Geneva.
  18. ^ Friends of the Earth, A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees, Fact Sheet Four: Predictions of Climate Refugees to 2050
  19. ^ Kolmannskog, V (2008). Future Floods of Refugees, (Norwegian Refugee Council: Oslo)
  20. ^ Black, R. (1998). Refugees, Environment and Development, Harlow: Longman
  21. ^ Gemenne, F (2009). ‘Environmental Migration: Normative Frameworks and Policy Prescriptions’, Doctoral Thesis, Sciences-Po, Paris
  22. ^ Afifi, T., Warner, K. 2007 The Impact of Environmental Degradation on Migration Flows across Countries UNU-EHS working paper no. 3. Bonn.
  23. ^ International Organization for Migration's Perspective on Migration and Climate Change
  24. ^ International Organization for Migration: Key Principles for Policy Making on Migration, Climate Change & the Environmental Degradation
  25. ^ "No place like home - climate refugees", The Environmental Justice Foundation, 2009
  26. ^ "Global warming could create 150 million climate refugees by 2050" John Vidal, The Guardian, 3rd November 2009.
  27. ^ "Before the Flood" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, The New York Times, May 9, 2005.
  28. ^ "Warming up to Immigrants: An Option for US Climate Policy" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, Economic and Political Weekly, November 7, 2009.
  29. ^ "The Ethical Implications of Sea-Level Rise Due to Climate Change" Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 24.3 (Fall 2010).
  30. ^ Litchfield, William Alex. "Climate Change Induced Extreme Weather Events & Sea Level Rise in Bangladesh leading to Migration and Conflict". American University. ICE Case Studies. http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/Bangladesh.html. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  31. ^ Climate Refugees at Sundance Film Festival 2010
  32. ^ Hermann Josef Hack Website

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