Environmental Refugees

Displaced From Their Homes By Disaster and Environmental Circumstances

Environmental Refugees
Disasters such as wildland fires can cause individuals and families to become environmental refugees. Donald Miralle/Getty Images

When major disasters hit or if sea levels rise drastically, millions of people are displaced and left without homes, food, or resources of any kind. These people are left to seek new homes and livelihoods, yet they are not offered international aid due to the reason that they are displaced.


Refugee Definition

The term refugee first meant “one seeking asylum” but has since evolved to mean “one fleeing home.” According to the United Nations, a refugee is a person who flees their home country due to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/ or seriously affected the quality of their life.” According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), an environmental refugee is a person displaced owing to environmental causes, notably land loss and degradation, and natural disaster.


Permanent and Temporary Environmental Refugees

Many disasters strike and leave areas destroyed and virtually uninhabitable. Other disasters, such as floods or wildfires may leave an area uninhabitable for a short while, but the area regenerates with the only risk being a similar event taking place again. Still other disasters, like long-term drought can allow people to return to an area but don’t offer the same opportunity for regeneration and can leave people without an opportunity for re-growth. In the situations where areas are uninhabitable or re-growth is not possible, individuals are forced to permanently relocate. If this can be done within one’s own country, that government remains responsible for the individuals, but when environmental havoc is wreaked on an entire country, the individuals leaving the country become environmental refugees.


Natural and Human Causes

Disasters that result in environmental refugees have a wide variety of causes and can be attributed to both natural and human reasons.
Some examples of natural causes include drought or floods caused by a shortage or excess of precipitation, volcanoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Some examples of human causes include over-logging, dam construction, biological warfare, and environmental pollution.


International Refugee Law

The International Red Cross predicts that there are currently more environmental refugees than refugees displaced because of war, yet environmental refugees are not included or protected under the International Refugee Law which developed out of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
This law only includes persons who fit these three basic characteristics:


  • They are outside their country of origin or outside the country of their formal habitual residence;
  • They are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted; and
  • The persecution feared is based on at least one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Since environmental refugees do not fit these characteristics, they are not guaranteed asylum in other more developed countries, as a refugee based on these characteristics would be.


Resources for Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are not protected under International Refugee Law and because of this, they are not considered actual refugees. There are few resources, but some resources do exist for those displaced based on environmental reasons. For example, The Living Space for Environmental Refugees (LiSER) Foundation is an organization that is working to put environmental refugee issues on the agendas of politicians and their website has information and statistics on environmental refugees as well as links to ongoing environmental refugee programs.
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Karpilo, Jessia, Geography Intern. "Environmental Refugees." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/environmental-refugees-overview-1434944. Karpilo, Jessia, Geography Intern. (2017, March 3). Environmental Refugees. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/environmental-refugees-overview-1434944 Karpilo, Jessia, Geography Intern. "Environmental Refugees." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/environmental-refugees-overview-1434944 (accessed April 21, 2018).