The climate change may explode the number of environmental refugees

Group 6: Tiina Paasonen, Jenni Uusilehto, Miia Vähähyyppä

Developing countries are threatened by different kinds of environmental changes. IPCC estimates that weakening in living conditions can cause more than 50 million environmental refugees escaping their home region by the year 2020. Where do those people go? Are European Union countries potential to place these refugees? How should EU be prepared to such high number of environmental refugees?

According to researchers an environmental migrant is defined as following:

  • People who are purportedly forced to migrate from their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment. These changes include more droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons.

Though the definition is quite simple it is not that easy to define who is escaping for environmental reasons in practice. The problem of refugees can be caused in so many ways. Usually a reason for someone escaping from his or her home country is always something environmentally related. Desertification can cause lack of agricultural possibilities, which leads to lack of food creating a group of people escaping from the region. For example some of the restlessness in Northern Africa has risen from environmental issues. In Tunis some conflicts stem from the lack of food and people escaping the conflicts can be counted as environmental refugees.

Already without the environmental migrants, the refugee situation in the world is severe. According to the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR there were 43 million refugees in year 2009. The majority of refugees don’t leave their home country: only a third is forced to escape abroad.

Eight out of ten refugees live in developing countries. Three countries with the biggest amount of them are Pakistan, Iran and Syria. 14 per cent of the world’s refugees live in Europe, where the most are located in Germany, United Kingdom and France.

The EU:s point of view

EU directive defines requirements for a refugee:

  • Asylum is a form of protection given by a State on its territory based on the principle of non-refoulement and internationally or nationally recognized refugee rights. It is granted to a person who is unable to seek protection in his/her country of citizenship and/or residence in particular for fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

There is no such thing as an environmental refugee in the directive. According to a report Future floods of refugees made by Norwegian Refugee Council in year 2008 so called economic migrants do not have a very strong position in international law. This migration is often linked to socioeconomic conditions.

Some national legislations have anyhow considered also environmental refugees. For example in Finnish legislation for foreign affairs there is a mention about humanitarian protection. Basically it means that Finland is prepared to take environmental refugees to the country in case there would happen some environmental crisis nearby. “But the law has never been used this far or no refugee has invoked the humanitarian protection when seeking asylum”, says Sanna Sutter, a consulting official from Ministry of the Interior in Finland.

The frightening outlook

Since environmental refugees are not given the refugee status, official records do not include environmental refugees. Any official number for them does not exist, but the organization Red Cross has estimated that in year 2001 there were more than 25 million environmental refugees. Compared to total amount of refugees (43 million) it is a lot. According to Intergovernmental Panel for climate change the number of environmental refugees can even be as high as 750 millions. The number depends on the way the refugees are counted.

The cap between those numbers can be explained. A “normal” refugee escapes his or her home country for personal reasons. He or she or a little minority group is personally persecuted and is in a need to leave the country. But when an environmental crisis hits it can have influence to more than a thousand persons at the same time and they all have to leave their country. That makes the number of environmental refugees so much bigger.

Environmental refugees are not only them who are escaping sudden environmental crisis. Also those whose living condition weaken in a long run are environmental refugees. “The flood of climate refugees moves very slowly. The reasons for people moving out of their living areas are happening in so wide range of time. People are starting to flee from the areas little by little”, says Outi Perähuhta, planner of International Programme of The Finnish Refugee Council.

Whose is the responsibility?

There is a moral dilemma, about who should take responsibility of environmental refugees. Some say it is the industrialized Western countries, because they can be accused for causing the climate change. Some say it is nobody’s fault, because nature and climate are not controllable.

The problem is that the European Union does not know the word environmental refugee. For EU, environmental refugees don’t exist.

The future is impossible to predict, but the European Union does not have the capacity to settle millions of refugees coming on short notice.

Until now the most refugees have been settled by other developing countries. The most of the world’s refugees live in Asia, Middle East and Africa. Only fourteen per cent live in Europe. Is this going to change along with the climate change shaking the third world? Europe might be the future worlds safe harbour.

The European Union has not publicly noted any intention to extend the definition of refugee to apply to people fleeing for environmental reasons. At present the EU is not prepared for the possible massive flood of environmental refugees.

Has EU already done enough?

In the authorities point of view, the European Union does not have to take actions for improving the conditions of environmental refugees.

“We in the European Union already have regulations for helping these people”, says Esko Repo from the Finnish Immigration Service.

Outi Perähuhta remarks that the European Union already operates for climate refugees’ benefit with the European development policy and the Climate Action established in February 2010. If the EU manages to diminish the carbon dioxide emissions, it may be able to diminish the number of climate refugees.

Also working in the field of development and aid may help also environmental refugees. For example Finnish Refugee Council has projects that aim to help people of developing countries to decrease their own emissions.

Listen and watch Abdul’s story about how it feels to be an environmental refugee.


One Response to “The climate change may explode the number of environmental refugees”

  1. peterverweij Says:

    good opening of the story, linking environmental refugees to EU. Links are a bit general, to organizations not to documents. Video story is interesting, but what is the source? The message- structure of the story- is clear, we have no real definition. Then specialist are commenting; they are credibility and have a clear opinion. Is there a special role for the EU?

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