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Essay: Environmental refugees

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  • Subject area(s): Environmental studies essays
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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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  • Words: 1,609 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)

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Extreme sudden-onset weather events, primarily from flooding and large storms, displaced more than 38 million people worldwide in 2010. The devastating floods in Pakistan, caused by unusually heavy monsoon rains in July and August accounted for 20 million.  The rains flooded nearly a fifth of Pakistan’s national territory which affected more than 10 percent of the country’s population of 181 million. About 1,800 people died leaving 3,000 injured and the flood waters caused huge losses of property, infrastructure and livelihoods. The southern province of Sindh, which is on the coast of the Arabian Sea, suffered the worst with more than 7 million people affected and 1.5 million left displaced.

2 million homes were washed away along with 400 miles of road and 46 bridges and railway lines totaling nearly $9.7 billion in infrastructure damage estimated by the World Bank. Those most impacted were the populations of small cities, villages and rural areas many with high population densities. The 1.5 million displaced by the floods initially ended up in camps in dryer area that were primarily run by provincial governments as well as local and foreign nongovernmental organizations(NGOs).

Major natural disasters are not a new phenomenon to Pakistan even in 2010. In October of 2005 an earthquake killed nearly 73,000 people and injured around 200,000 displacing 3.5 million. In the province of Balochistan 300,000 were displaced in June and July 2007 due to floods. The Pakistan rainfalls usually emanate from moisture swept in over India from the Bay of Begal. Typically

Transitional sentence: However, the plight of so-called “environmental refugees” continues to be largely unrecognized and devoid of support by an international community.

An environmental refugee can be defined by three categories of characterization. The first includes people temporarily displaced due to environmental stress, but are able to return to their habited area once is has even rehabilitated following a natural hazard or environmental accident. Second the term may include those permanently displaced and who have resettled elsewhere due to environmental change. The third category considers those who have migrated permanently or temporarily in search of a better quality of life as a result of progressive degradation of environmental resources. The characterizations of environmental refugees are based on the ranges of classifications based on factors that include the specific environmental impact for migration (rising sea levels, water scarcity, etc), the duration of migration (temporary, long term, permanent), and migration in relation to state borders (internal or transboundary). The varied interpretation of environmental refugee may be one of the key challenges of implementing their recognition in international law frameworks.

There are many international conventions and protocols that address climate change head on such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement each with over 190 signatories. These conventions/protocols require every country that has signed on to reduce their environmental impact by setting strict goals about reducing carbon or greenhouse gas emissions. Although these conventions are striving for a global fight against climate change none mention the effect of climate displacement.

Environmental refugees are not recognized in international agreements because the term itself is not defined. There is a narrow internationally recognized legal definition of the term “Refugee” under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The definition states, “..a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence, and cannot rely on his or her home state for the fear of maltreatment”(UNHCR). The 1951 Refugee convention was created in response specifically to the influx of refugees in postwar Europe and at a time when the disasters of climate change were unknown. This definition surrounds the idea of “statelessness” or not belonging to one individual state and only protects those who flee their country from fear of persecution or conflict and do not wish to return on the basis of “race, religion, nationality” or “membership of a particular social or political group”(UNHCR). Climate change is a global process which means it cannot be considered persecution or conflict of an individual state and therefore the term “Environmental Refugee” is not included in the definition and not legally recognized under international law.

In the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s Global Report in 2016 on internal displacement collected data on the number of persons displaced by conflict and violence versus disasters in 2015. The outcome of their data found that there were about 8.6 million people displaced by conflict/violence and about 19.2 million people displaced by disaster with intensity zones lying in coastal regions. These numbers show that there are over twice as many people being displaced by disaster rather than conflict and yet there is not international framework put in place to protect 19.2 million people and this number is drastically increasing every year.

Due to the increasing severity of displacement by climate change there has been push from the public to expand the definition of refugee to include “Environmental Refugee”. However, there has been opposition from state governments because expanding the definition would open “refugee floodgates” due to the enormity of the problem. Large organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have criticized the expansion of the definition as well fearing that it may devalue the current protection for Refugees. Few will support the changing or modifying of a 66 year old international law that is the basis for Refugee safeguarding.

The UNHCR has a mandate to protect that applies specifically to  the “traditional” refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Under this mandate the UNHCR does recognize Internally Displaced Persons or IDPS under International Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law to have their rights and well-being be protected at the state level. If a person or a population of persons are displaced due to natural disasters, loss of habitat, etc. and remains in their own country they could be considered an IDP. Unfortunately due to the protection of rights by the state many times IDPs are not adequately protected by their own state and many environmental refugees end up in camps or urban slums. The fault of protection under state law is due to the lack of monitoring by international agencies to ensure that states are complying with international human rights laws and standards in regards to their legal action for IDPs.

There is a possibility of using a “bottoms-up” approach through soft law or guidelines/policy declarations that are neither strictly binding nor completely lacking in legal significance that could create standards of conduct(Williams 2008). Influential organizations such as the UNHCR or the Intergovernmental International Organization for Migration could create a “benchmark” of international standards through national policies that would be recognized on a state level. This could ensure the emergence of an international customary law that could be enforced through out many national governments. If the implementation could be monitored this could establish basic standards and a uniform approach for environmental refugees through an IDP law framework. This possible remedy for international recognition of environmental refugees does have it’s drawbacks specifically because it limits the scale of displacement to be exclusively internal to the state and does not consider any kind of cross-border displacement.

It is very important to remember that those who are displaced by climate change are inherently human individuals who should be protected and recognized based on their intrinsic value and circumstance rather than be manipulated and engineered into a preexisting legal framework. The absence of an international framework put in place respectively for people affected by climate displacement violates international law recognized under the International Bill of Human Rights. The Bill of Human Rights is the basis for international conventions like that of the Refugee Convention. Since people displaced by climate change are not considered in international agreements there is a gap to the respect of the articles agreed upon under the Bill. Article 25 belonging to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the International Bill of Rights clearly states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and med- ical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”(ohchr). Climate change displacement would easily constitute as a “lack of livelihood in circumstances” beyond a persons control underlying a clear violation of Human Rights. Many other articles pertaining to the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under the Bill are also directly violated by the absence of a international framework for people displaced by climate change.

Although protection of environmental refugees through international law is virtually nonexistent, a New Zealand government minister recently indicated that the country may become, “The world’s first country to essentially recognize climate change as an official reason to seek asylum or residence elsewhere”(Washington Post). If this policy is implemented up to 100 individuals per year could be admitted to the island nation on a newly created visa category specifically accepting climate change refugees from neighboring Pacific Islands with close collaboration between the authorities of New Zealand and the affected Nations. This is a relatively small number of people to admit compared to the 150 million to 300 million to be forced out of their homes because of climate change by 2050 produced by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center(WashingtonPost), but New Zealand could be a role model for other national courts and in public debates. Environmental Activists around the world could use New Zealand as an example to pressure their own governments to create similar policies. If the New Zealand government does create a new visa category in the next year this could be a step forward for environmental refugees on a global scale, but the time seems to be running out.

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