Who is an “environmental migrant”? Is it a citizen of an island nation escaping rising seas at his doorstep; a drought-stricken farmer who cannot grow crops or raise livestock; or someone living in a highly polluted metropolis forced to move to another country to cure persistent asthma attacks?
These are not anecdotal examples, rather realities that many environmental migrants face. The International Organization for Migration predicts that by 2050 there could be as many be 200 million environmentally displaced people.
Stories of migration caused by environmental degradation pepper human history. The Dust Bowl exodus from the American praries in the 1930s, for example, was a combination of severe drought and poor land use led to massive soil erosion and the United States’ biggest internal migration.
More recently, the 2006-2009 drought in Syria, the worst the country has experienced in modern times and exacerbated by climate change, led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. This movement added to existing social stresses and may have contributed to the outbreak of violence and civil war in 2011.
Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been forced from their homes by natural disasters. This is the equivalent to one person displaced every second. And the trend is on the rise. Cumulatively, these factors present a tremendous challenge to the international community.
In May this year, at the World Humanitarian Summit, Tuvalu’s prime minister called for a UN resolution to create legal protection for people displaced by the impacts of climate change, including communities that might have to move because of rising seas, water shortages and other threats to their homes.
The low-lying island nation of Kiribati has raised the prospect of having to relocate its entire population to Fiji if sea levels continue to rise. The country even bought a symbolic plot of land in Fiji to highlight the choices that may face the Kiribati government.
UN Environment, together with international partners, works to support vulnerable countries and communities around the world on issues of displacement and migration. We encourage and enable ecosystem approaches to disaster risk reduction that help communities build ‘green defences’ to natural disasters; we help countries anticipate and adapt to the impacts of climate change; and we work with humanitarian agencies to reduce their own environmental footprint and ‘do no harm’.
“When you look at the root causes of displacement environmental change or degradation is often a part of the story, so better environmental management should be part of the solution,” said Oli Brown, Senior Programme Coordinator, Disasters and Conflicts, UN Environment.In the coming year, UN Environment will be joining the Global Migration Group, the main UN platform for interagency cooperation on migration and displacement, and will be well poised to contribute to discussions and negotiations on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018.