The Tragedy of Environmental Refugees
In 1940, 2.5 million people left the Great Plains to migrate to adjacent areas and neighboring states. Severe drought and dust storms drove farmers and their families to leave their barren farmlands behind.
The Dust Bowl period created the largest migration in American history that happened within a short period of time. The environmental disaster was caused by intensive and increased plowing of the topsoil, which eliminated the native grass that prevented soil erosion and retained soil moisture even in times of drought.
Today those people and others like them are identified as environmental refugees, a term coined in 1976 by Lester Brown, founder of the World Watch Institute.
Definition of Environmental Refugee
Environmental refugees are people driven from their homes by environmental pressure or natural disasters. Norman Myers defines environmental refugees as “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty.”
Hurricane Katrina, the famous hurricane that overtook New Orleans, Louisiana, created several tens of thousands of environmental refugees. More than half of the cities inhabitants moved to other parts of the country, never to return.
Environmental refugees differ from economic and political refugees, although these three might be connected in some ways. Some have criticized the classification of environmental refugees under international laws. Several countries refuse to allow migrants into their territories under this classification. As of now, there are very few world conventions where the term “environmental refugee” is acknowledged.
Hopefully this will change in the future.
Environmental refugees may be forced to leave their homes due to droughts, rising sea levels, desertification, or changes in seasonal weather patterns.
In China, tens of millions are leaving some 24,000 villages due to increasing desertification and shrinking freshwater supplies. In Alaska, 23 villages are waiting to be relocated due to flooding caused by melting ice. In one village alone, the cost of relocating is fifty million dollars according to an engineering study. If these people did not relocate, they would drown in the floodwater from the ice melt.
Rising Sea Levels Are A Major Concern
Rising ocean levels are a growing concern, especially for low lying island states and countries. A 1 meter rise in sea level would force about 40 million Bangladeshi to relocate. More than 142 million people are currently residing in Bangladesh and such massive internal relocation would not be easy. Moreover, other countries would not readily accept environmental refugees in such quantities. Many island states and coastal villages are in danger as global warming continues to increase sea levels due to ice meltdown.
The Red Cross reports that more people are now displaced by climate change and environmental disasters than by wars. Experts have predicted as many as 50 million environmental refugees will need assistance and relocation by 2020. The problem is compounded by the difficulties the refugees encounter in their search and efforts to rebuild their lives. Most insurance companies refuse to provide coverage in affected areas of environmental disasters. There are a few nations that refuse to acknowledge their status as refugees. The assistance and benefits that are given to political refugees are simply not available to environmental refugees. More often than not, they are labeled as economic refugees and refused entrance.
Environmental refugees are experiencing more problems after they surviving major environmental disasters. They need to be acknowledged as the refugees that they are. Environmental issues and disasters have transformed them from ordinary citizens to people in need of a new home in a new location.
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by expertinfantry, MyEyeSees, Risling Produktionen on Flickr.
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