Should there be Environmental Refugees?

The legal net for the acceptance of refugees is hotly contested ground. One definition of a refugee is if a person has a genuine fear of being persecuted for membership of a particular social group or class. A couple from Bangladesh set a global precedent last year by winning an appeal in the Australian High Court. The couple was gay, deemed by the court a persecuted social group.

It appears Bangladesh is once again testing the boundaries of international refugee law. The country is recovering from the grip of horrific floods again, this one the worst in twenty years. Hundreds have died but many more are in grave danger from an epidemic of water-borne diseases as sewerage overflows into the towns and villages.

As a result, NGOs based in Bangladesh have renewed calls for a new class of refugee – the environmental refugee.

A similar call was made from leaders in the Pacific Islands last month, asking Australia to recognise environmental refugees. The Pacific will be particularly vulnerable to any further rises in sea level. Australia, they argue, was the major industrial polluter in the region and a country that did not sign up to the Kyoto protocol. As a result, the Pacific conservationists reckoned Australia had a responsibility to shoulder the human burden of global warming amongst their immediate neighbours.

The tiny island of Tuvalu, which lies halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has already conceded defeat. Their leaders have decided to abandon their homeland. New Zealand has agreed to accept the entire population of eleven thousand people over the course of the next decade. Australia was reluctant to take any of them.

Furthermore, the current Australian government has been a staunch supporter of fossil fuels. Its latest change to its environmental policy had the guise of a more forward outlook. John Howard allocated $700 million for research into alternate energy development. But in the same announcement the Australian PM revealed excises on fossil fuels would be reduced by $1.5 billion, effectively removing any incentive to use renewable-energy sources. The short-sighted policy can only accelerate the process of global warming.

Bangladesh is a country at immediate risk from global warming and the resultant rise in sea levels. There are seventeen million people who live less than one metre above sea level. The country lies in the delta of three very large rivers, which then flow into the Bay of Bengal. The World Bank has published a map which shows that a rise of only 50cm in the sea level, consistent with predictions over the course of the next half-century, would engulf two-thirds of the country.

This will threaten the very existence of Bangladesh in future decades.

It already has a population of 140 million people and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. As usual, it is the sick, the elderly and landless peasants who will shoulder the greatest burden. These people, though powerless and desperate, will demand somewhere to go.

Whilst the problem can appear quite distant to Western citizens, the reality is that the fallout from environmental disasters in upcoming decades will be as great if not greater than military ones.

The global environmental think thank, the World Watch Institute, estimates there are ten million people who have been left destitute from the effects of deforestation, soil erosion, floods or cyclones. This makes them the largest class of refugees, greater than those fleeing from war.

But unfortunately there is no category for environmental refugees. The law does not recognise their destitute status.

The ecologist Norman Myers predicted a decade ago that we were slowly heading towards a “hidden crisis”. He was referring to those fleeing natural disaster, both the gradual and sudden kind. He estimates their numbers will be 150 million people within the next three decades. The crisis is hidden because there is no category for them. They are legal gypsies, without a home in the Geneva Convention. When they do cross borders they are generally classified as economic migrants or illegal aliens.

For example, New Zealand calls the citizens it is accepting from sinking Tuvalu as members of a “migration program”. The government is doing its best to keep the program as low-key as possible, concerned that conservative groups could exploit the Tuvaluan example for political advantage.

There has been ongoing debate within the United Nations. Only last year it decided it should not change the law to include those fleeing natural disaster. Their key argument was that environmental refugees were of a cyclical kind. Natural disasters came and went. Those who flee tend to return, or should return, when the disaster subsides, according to the argument.

The term refugee should be protected for those people for whom their governments have failed them.

By this argument you can runaway from a cyclone but you won’t get refugee status. Whilst a cyclone can maim and destroy you, it can’t persecute you.

The Australian government believes it is a non issue. If the UN doesn’t care, nor do we, is the essence of their case.

But global realities have a way of forcing the hand of the law. Like the forces of technology, the vexed issue of climate change is likely to outpace the tortoise-like progress of any parallel law and regulation.

Global problems require global responsibility. Climate change is a reality. Increasing numbers of people fleeing natural disaster is a reality. However, this is not mirrored under international law and the impoverished nations which are most affected will continue to suffer.

[email protected] Tanveer Ahmed is a doctor and journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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