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e-Journal

 

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

 
  by Ethan Goffman  

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Wither the Refugees? Solutions?

Contents

A frequently cited solution to many refugee situations is a "right of return," that people be allowed to come back to a place they were forced to flee and resume life there. The danger is of a kind of mythic assumption that one can return to an old life, pick it up as it once was lived. Rather, as Ruth Haug argues, lives and cultures must be remade to reflect new circumstances. At the same time, for many refugees, their new location will become their permanent home; "For forced migrants the possibility or right to stay in the area where they settle down might be as important as the right to return to one's homeland. Internationally, the right to return appears to be more recognized than the right to stay."42

refugees and huts
Mozambicans in Tanzania, one of several groups in countries of asylum, 1960s

Much of the discussion around New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina revolves around whether the city's refugees should return, and under what circumstances.* One estimate put the number of refugees in Katrina's immediate aftermath, over an area of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama much larger than just New Orleans, at close to one million.43 Regarding the city of New Orleans, the argument for return includes the ideal of a potent culture, largely based on African American music and traditions, epitomized in the mayor's "chocolate city" remark. Yet given the likelihood of future hurricanes, New Orleans' vulnerable position, the even more vulnerable situation of most of the city's African American residents, and the environmental cost of altering hydrology, such a return is unlikely. And, according to Slate magazine, rebuilding New Orleans as it once was is untenable and probably invites disaster. In this, the liberal Slate agrees with the conservative Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, who after Katrina, "cited the geographical insanity of rebuilding New Orleans."44

Following the hurricane, numerous hazards, natural and human-made, permeated the city. According to one source, just after the disaster, "sediment left over from Katrina's floodwaters harbors fuel components, metals, pesticides and other chemicals . . . . Meanwhile splotches of fuzzy mold consume walls, ceilings and furniture."45 New Orleans was created and expanded by altering the area's natural hydrology; "starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city."46 And the city remains vulnerable to hurricanes, which in the current cycle are expected to continue for about a decade, and which global climate change may be making deadlier than ever. The New Orleans situation appears to be one in which environmental realities will eventually trump social justice issues.

boat in flood
Rescuers guide a boat through the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, Erath, Louisiana
The default situation is one in which many of the poorest and least influential inhabitants remain far from their homes, eventually settling elsewhere. Some such loss is inevitable, and better housing is needed than the trailer parks temporarily provided. The Heritage Foundation points to the number of vacant rental units across the U.S. and suggests an old solution: "With rent vouchers, the relief effort can use the hundreds of thousands of vacant units in the region." For many, the uprooting caused by Hurricane Katrina may lead refugees to new opportunities: "access to better housing than they had in the slums of New Orleans and . . . the choice to remain in communities where they can improve their standard of living."47 Slate reaches a similar conclusion: "Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States." The aftermath of Katrina may end up providing a vivid illustration of the right to stay in one's new location, how, if not shunted aside into temporary camps, environmental refugees can be integrated into communities and start new lives.

The other part of the equation, the right of return, seems problematic in New Orleans. We may end up with a superficially attractive city rebuilt primarily in already wealthy areas, yet one that has lost its historic jazz and soul. Or numerous refugees may return to substandard housing in the lowest, most vulnerable areas, only to get slammed again by the next hurricane. Perhaps better social and environmental planning would allow most refugees a relatively safe return to New Orleans, in better housing, on higher ground, with thought given to the jobs and other conditions necessary for a secure future. Such a plan would not duplicate prior conditions, but would allow a line of social and cultural continuation, albeit in evolving circumstances.

Return and resettlement, the two means of handling environmental refugees, depend upon numerous conditions-the wishes of the refugees, the availability of places able and willing to take them in, the condition of the refugees' original homeland. Rebuilding is easier after a temporary event, such as an earthquake, than a permanent change, such as desertification, which requires long-term environmental management. The balance between continuity, restoring original conditions to both natural and human environments, and the need for change, is also tricky. Restoration may be an ideal goal; but often a new balance is needed, one that considers the interests of all parties and while preserving former elements.

Of course the best policy is prevention, maintaining current ecosystems and a balance between human needs and natural resources to avoid the conditions that create environmental refugees. Restoring wetlands in states such as Louisiana and Florida is one of many methods to lessen the severity of future events, since such wetlands act as enormous sponges sucking some of the force from future hurricanes. Pollution, climate change, and land degradation are caused by humans, and the right policies will alleviate future disasters. Defining and implementing these policies is, of course, far easier said than done.

Unfortunately environmental systems seem to be threatened on an international scale, with increasing migration likely in the near future. To remedy this, one source calls for "global migration policies that transcend national boundaries."48 Whether such a solution is practical, more thought needs to be given to institutionalizing the concept of environmental refugees in international law to ensure at least a modicum of fair treatment. Whether driven from their homes at gunpoint, starved out, or wracked by wind and water, people forced to flee through no fault of their own deserve a chance at decent futures.

*There has been some controversy over whether the term "refugees" is appropriate, since some feel it carries a negative connotation, or makes it appear as though the displaced have crossed a national border. For the sake of consistency, this paper refers to them as "refugees." For a discussion of the controversy, see Pesca, M. 2005. Are Katrina's victims 'refugees' or 'evacuees?' National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4833613. accessed June 31, 2006.

© Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved, CSA

List of Visuals

References

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  2. Ibid., p. 5.
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  5. Ibid., p. 441.
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