Increasing global temperatures and land degradation are forcing more people to migrate, creating a wave of environmental refugees who need U.N. protection, a professor at the United Nations University said.
UNITED NATIONS -- Increasing global temperatures and land degradation are forcing more people to migrate, creating a wave of environmental refugees who need U.N. protection, a professor at the United Nations University said.
Janos Bogardi on Wednesday urged the United Nations to recognize that droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes and other environmental factors -- many of which are worsening because of climate change -- have played a role in the migration of millions of people worldwide.
Accurate, comprehensive numbers on environmental migrants are hard to come by, Bogardi said, since migrants often leave home for a variety of reasons.
Still, the U.N. refugee agency estimated in 2002 that there were about 24 million people worldwide who had fled floods, famine and other poor environmental conditions. A report from 2005 by Norman Myers, a professor of environmental science at Duke University, estimated that by 2010 about 50 million people will have migrated for environmental reasons.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 displaced more than 2 million people, many of whom are still in refugee camps, according to a 2006 report from the U.N.'s office for tsunami recovery.
Bogardi, director of the university's Institute for Environment and Human Security based in Bonn, Germany, said many in the international community are wary of addressing environmental migration because they fear the vague term might water down current U.N. protections for refugees.
"If we overload the (U.N. convention), we are weakening one of the strongest tools for protecting refugees," he told a panel discussion at U.N. headquarters.
The United Nations "should find other means of helping environmental migrants," he said.
Bogardi also said that environmental factors often lie at the root of more obvious causes of migration.
Competition for scarce resources may end in violent conflict, for instance. Over-mining or excessive deforestation -- driven by tremendous need in impoverished countries -- may result in land degradation and thus forced migration, he said.
Bogardi suggested that either the U.N. should adopt a new convention aimed solely at protecting environmental migrants or that provisions for such migrants should be included in international environmental treaties.
He proposed three broad categories to distinguish among people who leave their homes: those who are influenced only in part by worsening environmental conditions, those who leave to escape the worst effects of a poor environment, and those who are forced to flee a disaster.
Bogardi said that, like other migrants, environmental migrants most often flee the developing world for richer countries. But he added that no country is exempt from the negative effects of climate change.
"Vulnerability is with us all," he said, noting that more than 75,000 people are thought to have died from the 2003 heat wave in Western Europe.
He also pointed to Hurricane Katrina which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005, temporarily displacing 1.5 million people. Estimates indicate as many as 300,000 of those displaced will never return home, he added.
Still, he said, developing countries will be the least able to cope with environmental change and should receive the most help from international organizations to both rehabilitate salvageable land and to assist the safe passage of people from places that are no longer inhabitable.
Source: Associated Press