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Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?
(Released June 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations



What Is an "Environmental Refugee"?


Driven from their homes by natural disasters, drought, flood, famine, and other environmental causes, environmental refugees seem to be growing in number across the globe. One recent estimate puts the number at 25 million people worldwide, with a potential eventual increase to 200 million within 50 years.14 These numbers are problematic, however, given questions about the meaning of the term "environmental refugee" and the difficulty of determining the major causes of much migration. Still, it is clear that refugees from environmental events and stresses, from the dust bowl to the recent tsunami, are a problem that does not fit official categories, but has recently been given increased currency.

waving children on transport
A group of Jewish children leaving displaced persons camp

Following World War II, hosts of refugees languishing in camps throughout Europe led to international standards to deal with the problem systematically. The roots of this refugee problem were clear: war, political status, and fear of persecution. The adopted definition of "refugee" sprung clearly from these circumstances. In 1951, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 429 which defined refugees as those having:

well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.15

Still the main initial United Nations goal has long been repatriation, or return of refugees to their original homes. When circumstances make this impossible or undesirable, resettlement occurs. Resettlement may be in the immediate location to which refugees have fled, or in some third party location that agrees to take them in (often a developed country). Until a permanent home can be established, however, it is up to the United Nations, helped by numerous nongovernmental organizations, to provide food, shelter, medical care, and other basic services to the refugees.

refugees await tropical fruit
Miskito Indians from Nicaragua wait for food at a Honduran camp, 1980s

Resolution 429 set a precedent of haven granted on a political basis. Over the years, as refugees increasingly came from developing countries, new strains were placed on the United Nations. By the end of the 20th century, the definition of "refugee" had been extended, bringing international protection to people who "are forced to move for a complex range of reasons including persecution, widespread human rights abuses, armed conflict and generalized violence."16 Even the extended definition, however, does not cover environmental refugees. As one source explains, "many people forced into exile for ecological reasons have to claim political refugee status. For instance, in 1992 the thousands of people who fled the drought in Mozambique had political refuge status in Zambia."17

The term "environmental refugee" is of recent vintage, attributed to Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the late 1970s. More recently, Norman Myers has defined 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."18 Yet the concept of environmental refugee has been criticized as vague and simplistic. In a United Nations High Commission on Refugees working paper, Richard Black argues that "although environmental degradation and catastrophe may be important factors in the decision to migrate, and issues of concern in their own right, their conceptualization as a primary cause of forced displacement is unhelpful and unsound intellectually, and unnecessary in practical terms."19 Black and other scholars critique the way environmental refugees are sub-categorized, which varies from author to author. Does displacement due to an earthquake, for instance, qualify for the same kind of status as displacement from farmland that is so degraded as to be useless?

makeshift huts
Refugee Camp in Guinea
The problem can also be approached by asking how different environmental refugees are from economic and political refugees. Again we run into problems, as the world's political hot-spots correlate closely with environmental degradation. According to the Population Reference Bureau, "Environmental scarcity is never the sole cause of conflict, but it is often an aggravating or contributing factor. Future efforts at conflict prevention and resolution should take the role that environmental scarcity plays into account."20 Regarding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Peter Uvin shows how analysts view the tragedy through the lenses of their own belief systems. One view "holds up Rwanda, a small, landlocked, predominantly agricultural country with the highest population density in Africa, as a prime example of the disastrous consequences of resource scarcity," while another "attributes the Rwandan genocide exclusively to processes of ethnic identity and political strife. Proponents of these schools tend to seek no further than their own preferred causation and remain uninterested in the ideas of the other" 21 The effects of academic compartmentalization and the need for more interdisciplinary study are graphically illustrated here.

Environmental, economic, and political degradation are undoubtedly connected. Categories remain permeable, for instance in ongoing migrations to the United States; "Though nominally economic migrants, many of the estimated 1 million people who flood illegally into the United States annually from Mexico are in part driven by declining ecological conditions in a country where 60 percent of the land is classified as severely degraded."22 One classification may cause the other or, more likely, each drives the other in a vicious circle of reinforcing degradations. "Environmental refugee as a term is, today, basically perceived as a way of simplifying the understanding of a situation that is usually much more complex than what can be illustrated by environmental explanations," argues one social scientist.23

All of this would leave the term "environmental refugee" looking problematic, yet the term is useful for describing numerous real-world situations. It would, for instance, be pointless to define refugees from the recent Asian Tsunami, or from the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, solely via the 1951 United Nations definition, although political factors certainly influence the make-up, duration, and long-term fate of the refugees. In such cases, the term "environmental refugee" seems the best one. Other situations, such as the dust bowl, are more ambiguous, since the economic circumstances of the Great Depression were crucial, while the Haitian boat people are driven partly by environmental circumstances, but perhaps even more by political persecution. Yet if one were to analyze such terms as "economic refugee" or "political refugee" in these cases, one would find that they, too, break down.

Even in the numerous cases when the distinction between environmental and other types of refugees is blurry, it is important to have such a classification to know how international law treats people uprooted from their homes through no fault of their own. As Myers points out, "Environmental refugees are still to be officially recognized as a problem at all."24 According to another source, "in the eyes of foreign nations, refugees had no right to refuge unless and until they fit stringent, preordained requirements for origin, cause and escape."25 Yet obviously such refugees exist and suffer. Although prevention is the best policy, often this does not happen. Instead we need procedures to ensure "that migration-provided it is controlled, planned and orderly-can again become the positive force it has frequently been in the past."26 The goal here is to ensure that such refugees are able to contribute to the societies into which they're displaced, rather than being marginalized in camps or ghettos, becoming an economic drag, a source of tension and conflict.

Go To Classifying Environmental Refugees

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