Environmental refugees

It is more than likely that climate change will lead to such profound and widespread environmental changes that in many places people will have to leave their homes. In a UN Environment Programme Paper, author Essam El-Hinnawi had already warned of this migratory outflow in 1985. Nonetheless, migration which takes place due to environmental degradation and weather extremes is viewed as a new phenomenon.

Island states and coastal areas are particularly affected, such as in China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam, which would be under threat of flooding due to the rising sea levels. At the same time, droughts and storms are increasing, which would have a detrimental effect all over the world on the provision of water and food. Regions that are already affected more than average today are the Horn of Africa, Central America and Asia. Thus, 300,000 people fled during the drought in Somalia in 2010 and 2011.

But even independently of climate change, bad environmental conditions can make people migrate. This includes heavy regional environmental pollution, the increasing qualitative deterioration of the environment as well as natural disasters. The above-average use of pesticides in industrial agriculture, resource extraction (oil, uranium, gold) or the storage of toxic waste can cause severe regional environmental pollution (technical term “deposition of pollutants”). It can also be triggered by nuclear contamination following a nuclear disaster or nuclear weapons testing. Pollution can cause an increasing deterioration of the environment (technical term “degradation”), which makes its use by people more difficult or even impossible. This concerns above all the air and soil quality but also the lack or excess of water. Between 1945 and 1990, human activity caused the severe to very severe degradation of more than 1.2 billion hectares of land. Two-thirds of this area could be found in developing countries and thereby in regions in which the majority of the population lived directly from the use of the land. Natural disasters related to climate change are occurring more and more often—whether it is flooding due to the rise in sea levels or more frequent and stronger storms and droughts. Other catastrophes, such as landslides and flooding are a direct consequence of human interference in nature and the resulting environmental degradation. All of these processes can also lead to social destabilization. In some parts of research, it is assumed that conflicts that arise in this way could trigger more refugee movements.

Today, the German Council of Environmental Advisors (WBGU) defines environmental migrants as “all of those people, […] who migrate because environmental changes have altered the living environment directly in such a detrimental way that income and living standards achieved can no longer be maintained, or have damaged structures that are necessary for the maintenance of these standards”.

Admittedly, the term “environmental refugee” is controversial, for, on the one hand, it suggests that environmental changes alone are the trigger for migration. However, this is not empirically verifiable, as in reality political and socio-economic factors also always play an important role in refugee movements. On the other hand, it is about the term “refugee” itself. According to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, refugees are people who leave their country of origin “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Strictly speaking, therefore, “environmental refugees” do not count as “refugees” under international law. This “definition gap” could, in practice, be detrimental to those concerned if protection and rights, on which their official status depends, are at stake.

The extent to which forced migration caused by environmental changes will take place is speculative. The majority of these people will, however, probably—just as if they were fleeing for other reasons—seek refuge in other, less affected parts of the country or neighbouring states. All the more, the number of people who will seek refuge in Europe cannot be predicted. Correspondingly high calculations of “threat scenarios” and a "securitization" of the debate are not helpful either. Instead, the focus should be on containing climate change and a migration policy that is geared to the principles of humanity, human dignity and human rights.

Sources and further information:

BICC 12/2015

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