Environment, Security and Environmental Refugees
Laura Story Johnson
Migration takes many forms: temporary and permanent;
between and within countries; legal and illegal; forced or
voluntary; to cities or suburbs; for tourism or to escape
persecution; for economic gain or at the point of a gun;
daily commuting or in search of food. One thing in
common is that all are on the increase. The world is on
the move, and the environmental causes and
consequences are profound.
In 1989 at an American Institute of Biological Sciences meeting,
Mostafa K. Tolba, then Executive Director of the United Nations
Environmental Programme (UNEP), warned that “as many as 50 million
people could become environmental refugees” without coordinated
meaningful international action to safeguard the global environment.
In 1999, the chairman of the World Water Council argued that “more
people flee due to environmental problems than due to war,” and
estimated the number of environmental refugees in the world to be 25
Laura S. Johnson, B.A. Columbia University 2002, M.A.
Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy 2006, J.D. University
of Iowa College of Law 2010.
Paul Harrison & Fred Pearce, Migration and Tourism, in
SSOCIATION FOR THE
Mostafa K. Tolba, Our Biological Heritage Under Siege,
Address Given at American Institute of Biological Sciences
1989 Meeting, in 39 B
725, 727 (1989).
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 223
million, warning that this number would quadruple by 2005.
1999, Grover Foley wrote that “Climate change, at a conservative
estimate, will increase the number of environmental refugees six-fold
over the next fifty years: from 25 million to 150 million.”
2005, the United Nations University (UNU) warned that the world may
have to deal with as many as 50 million environmental refugees by the
In May 2005, Professor Norman Myers wrote: “There is a
new phenomenon in the global arena: environmental refugees.”
Warnings of an encroaching “environmental refugee crisis” have
peppered the news and academic articles in recent years, with
increasing global environmental degradation forcing individuals to
migrate across borders. While environmental degradation and crisis
are both causes and consequences of migration, defining an
“environmental refugee,” let alone determining how many
environmental refugees there may be in the world, is extremely
challenging. Environmental refugees are not recognized as refugees in
international law, and clear distinctions between environmental
World Information Centre on Environmental Refugees,
Living Space for Environmental Refugees,
http://www.liser.org/ (scroll down to section entitled
"Environmental Refugees")(last visited Mar. 6, 2006).
Grover Foley, The Looming Environmental Refugee Crisis,
ACUNU.org, Millennium Project: Emerging Environmental
Security Issues, www.acunu.org/millennium/env-
scanning.html (follow "October 2005" hyperlink; then
scroll down to subsection entitled "UNU Calls for
International Framework for Environmental Refugees") (last
visited Mar. 6, 2006).
Norman Myers, Environmental Refugees: An Emergent
Security Issue, Paper for Session III – Environment and
Migration – of the 13
Economic Forum 1 (May 22, 2005).
224 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
refugees and economic migrants are difficult to decipher. There are a
myriad of linked causalities which force individuals to migrate, and
environmental disaster and degradation play enormous roles in
displacing individuals around the world.
In today’s globalizing world, with intensification in the flows of
individuals across borders, refugees have been increasingly linked to
security issues. Refugees can constitute security threats in many
different dimensions. For example, Mills and Norton list: the individual
human security of the refugees, the human security of the original
residents in the areas to which refugees move, societal security, the
national security of the state, and international security.
and for the environmental refugee in particular, environmental security
must be added to this list. Environmental refugees are of concern to
both environmental security and to environment & security.
Environmental security, or the security of the environment, is an issue
linked to environmental refugees, as “high rates of migration may
denote a serious environmental crisis in the source region – and can
trigger environmental degradation in the receiving area.”
Environmental refugees are also a security issue linked to environment.
As Myers states:
Mills and Norton examine the history of the Rwandan
genocide of 1994, with “roots, at least partly, in the
displacement of thousands of Rwandan refugees.” The
authors detail how extremely large refugee flows can
sometimes lead to, or at least help create, conditions for
massive insecurity. Kurt Mills & Richard J. Norton,
Refugees and Security in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,
visited Mar. 2006).
Harrison & Pearce, supra note 1, at 87.
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 225
All in all, the issue of environmental refugees promises to rank as
one of the foremost human crises of our times. . . . While it derives
primarily from environmental problems, it generates myriad
problems of political, social and economic sorts. As such, it could
readily become a cause of turmoil and confrontation, leading to
conflict and violence.
The relationships between environmental refugees and security – both
environmental security and security linked to environment – will be
examined in this article. The research question serving as the premise
for this article is three-fold. First this article will question if
environmental refugees are a global security issue and will individually
examine national security, societal security, human security and
environmental security. The cases of Sardar Sarovar (national and
societal security), Vanuatu (human security) and Tanzania
(environmental security) will be used to illustrate the multidimensional
security issues connected to environmental refugees. Second, with a
focus on human security, the discussion will question if environmental
refugees should be afforded recognition and thereby international
assistance and protection in international law. Finally, with a look to
the future, this article will briefly examine legal and policy options to
address the interrelated issues of environmental refugees and security,
focusing on root causes and questioning what solutions exist to assist
and protect environmental refugees while at the same time ensuring
In the aftermath of World War II, millions of individuals were
uprooted from devastated cities and landscapes across Europe. “In a
Myers, supra note 6, at 3.
226 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
spirit of empathy and humanitarianism, and with a hope that such
widespread suffering might be averted in the future, nations came
together. . . and codified binding, international standards for the
treatment of refugees and the obligations of countries towards
Humanitarian law was introduced to protect and assist
individuals who were defined as refugees.
Refugee rights were
secured in the resulting 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of
Refugees (henceforth the 1951 Geneva Convention) and furthered with
the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Article One of
the 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as an individual who:
owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of
race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or
political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is
unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the
protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and
being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a
result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to
return to it.
Marilyn Achiron, A ‘Timeless’ Treaty Under Attack, 2
6 (2001), available
See B.E. Harrel-Bond & E. Voutira, Anthropology and the
Study of Refugees, 8 A
6, 7 (1992). For a
detailed development of the definition of “refugee,” see
Michael G. Wenk, The Refugee: A Search for Clarification,
. 62 (1968).
See Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July
28, 1951, and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,
Jan. 31, 196,7 reprinted in UNCHR Convention and the
Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees
(2007), available at http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf.
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees art. 1,
July 28, 1951, available at
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 227
The 1951 Geneva Convention laid the framework and foundation for
the international refugee regime. Parties to the 1951 Geneva
Convention, obliged to carry out the provisions of the Convention,
agree that they will secure the basic human rights of refugees (through
such measures as asylum) and that they will not forcibly return
individuals to countries where they face persecution – an act known as
refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement has a basis in
customary international law and is binding on all states. The Office of
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was
established in tandem with the 1951 Geneva Convention and is
mandated to coordinate and lead international action to protect and
Since 1951, the international refugee regime has developed and
evolved, expanding to provide a basic foundation for the assistance and
protection of a greater encompassing category: that of forced migrants.
Protection itself has been the story of a constant evolution over
many centuries, but today’s climate is particularly challenging and
complex. Current global migration patterns, in a world rapidly
shrinking because of improved communications, involve not only
refugees and asylum seekers, but also the often interlinking
movements of millions of economic migrants seeking a better way
of life, as well as human traffickers and their multi-billion dollar
business. The 1951 Refugee Convention remains the cornerstone of
refugee protection, but UNHCR has launched a series of initiatives
both to strengthen the treaty and to search more vigorously for
permanent and safe solutions for the world’s uprooted peoples.
U.N. High Comm'r for Refugees [UNHCR], Protecting
Refugees: Questions & Answers,
(last visited Mar. 7, 2006).
228 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
Migration, or voluntary migration, can be defined as movement from
one locality to another, or a movement to pursue other opportunities.
Migration is characterized by a decision to migrate. Forced migration,
as defined by the International Association for Forced Migration
(IASFM) is “a general term that refers to the movements of refugees
and internally displaced people (people displaced by conflicts) as well
as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or
nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.”
around the world, whether refugees, internally displaced persons
(IDPs), or environmental refugees, fall under the auspices of the
international refugee regime. However, the international refugee
regime, based on the 1951 Geneva Convention, has a specific definition
for a refugee that does not include IDPs or refugees who flee for
reasons outside the 1951 definition. Thus the framework and
foundation for today’s international refugee regime is under great
strain. Arguably the international refugee regime does not meet the
needs of today and must evolve to encompass the new problems and
challenges of forced migration. As Rosemarie Rogers notes, “We are
today in a new era with respect to issues of forced migration.”
international refugee regime secures individual human rights through
governments. Individuals who are unable to turn to their own
governments for protection (refugees) and who therefore need
Forced Migration Online: Frequently Asked Questions
(FAQ), http://www.forcedmigration.org/faq/#fm (last
visited Mar. 2, 2010).
Rosemarie Rogers, The Future of Refugee Flows and
Policies, 26 I
. 1112, 1112 (1992).
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 229
international assistance are dependent upon foreign governments and
international agencies to secure their basic rights.
Governments remain the major actors with respect to forced
migrants. They create the refugees and internally displaced. They
take back refugees and permit or help internally displaced to return
to a normal situation after a reconciliation has occurred or the
government has changed. Other governments grant asylum to
refugees and/or make funds available – bilaterally or through
international institutions – to support refugees in asylum countries
and to effect permanent solutions to refugee problems through
returns, through permanent integration into countries of first
asylum, or through third country resettlement. Increasingly,
governments have been willing to intervene in the affairs of other
countries to forestall the creation of forced migrants or to assist and
protect internally displaced populations.
As governments are the major actors with regard to forced migrants,
forced migrants have become dealt with via state migration policy.
Controlling migration policy – regulating who comes in and who leaves
a country – is a critical element of the sovereignty of a state. Migration
has moved to the top of political agendas around the world, and
migration policy has evolved into a focus of security. As Edward
Newman writes, “the question of how governments regulate
immigration and define categories of immigrants has, over time, led
people to view migration as an issue related to the security both of the
state and of existing citizens and legal residents.”
arguing that refugees are talked about in relation to the issue of
Id. at 1114.
Edward Newman, Refugees, International Security, and
Human Vulnerability: Introduction and Survey, in R
4 (Edward Newman & Joanne van Selm eds., New
York: U.N. Univ. Press 2003).
230 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
security “not only as people in need of protection and assistance but
also as potential threats to national security and even as a potential
source of armed terror.”
As governments are also responsible for
defining categories of immigrants beyond their obligations under the
1951 Geneva Convention, without a firm definition in international law
for forced migrants outside of the 1951 definition, individuals who are
internally displaced or displaced for reasons not addressed in the 1951
Geneva Convention are particularly vulnerable and at risk of having
their basic rights violated.
Environmental refugees fall into this category, lacking an
agreed-upon definition and recognition in the international refugee
regime. In 2002, Andrew Simms, policy director of London’s New
Economics Foundation argued “that the term ‘persecution’ should be
applied not only to persons suffering political or other officially defined
harassment, but also to those ‘forced to live in worsening poverty on
land that without warning could flood, or turn to dust.’”
In 2005, the
UN under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel “emphasized the need to
prepare now 'to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of
‘refugee’ within international frameworks.'"
incorporation of environmental refugees into the international refugee
regime is a hotly contested and debated issue. In 2004, Ruud Lubbers,
then the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, argued that there is no
Id. at 17.
Ray Wilkinson, A Critical Time for Refugees and their
Environment, 127 R
. 2, 12 (2002).
ACUNU.org, supra note 5.
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 231
such thing as an “environmental refugee.”
UNHCR contends that
whereas refugees can not turn to their own governments for
protection, as states are often the source of their persecution, “those
fleeing natural disasters continue to enjoy national protection whatever
the state of the landscape. Therefore, in order not to cloud the
distinction between the two groups, those fleeing for environmental
reasons should be considered ‘environmental migrants.’”
not individuals are labeled environmental refugees or environmental
migrants, what is inescapable is the fact that a growing number of
individuals around the world are being forcibly displaced by
environmental disasters, development projects that irreversibly alter
the environment, and environmental degradation. These individuals
are moving to save their lives and to preserve their human rights. This
article will refer to these individuals as environmental refugees.
Whether or not environmental refugees should be incorporated into
the international refugee regime will be returned to momentarily. First
environmental refugees, for the purposes of this article, must be
defined and the links between environmental refugees and economic
migrants will be discussed.
Essam El-Hinnawi first defined environmental refuges as:
those people who have been forced to leave their traditional
habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked
BBC News, Refugees and Migrants: Defining the
visited Mar. 9, 2010).
232 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that
jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of
their life. By ‘environmental disruption’ in this definition is meant
any physical, chemical and/or biological changes in the ecosystem
(or resource base) that render it, temporarily or permanently,
unstable to support human life.
An environmental refugee is an individual who is "displaced owing to
El-Hinnawi described three major types of
1) those temporarily dislocated due to disasters,
whether natural or anthropogenic;
2) those permanently displaced due to drastic
environmental changes, such as the construction of
3) those who migrate based on the gradual
deterioration of environmental conditions.
As an additional but smaller category, he included those people who
were displaced by the destruction of their environment as an act of
Essam El-Hinnawi, Environmental Refugees 4 (Nairobi:
U.N. Environmental Programme 1985).
U.N. Statistics Div., Environmental Glossary,
473 (last visited Mar. 8, 2010).
Diane C. Bates, Environmental refugees? Classifying
Human Migrations Caused by Environmental Change,
465, 469 (2002). Bates further
classifies environmental refugees, distinguishing based on
"criteria related to the characteristics of the
environmental disruption, including 1) its origin (natural
or technological); 2) its duration (acute or gradual); and
3) whether or not migration was a planned outcome of the
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 233
While environmental refugees may not need protection from
persecution or violence, they are individuals who are unable to return
to their homes, individuals who have been uprooted by causes beyond
their control. While most environmental refugees move internally,
displaced within their countries of origin, some environmental refugees
are crossing international borders.
As Graeme Hugo writes:
Historically the vast bulk of migration caused by environmental
change has occurred within national boundaries, as have the
environmental effects initiated by population movements.
Nevertheless, the international dimensions of this relationship have
been neglected until recently. Moreover . . . the dimension is of
increasing scale and significance in concert with the accelerating
pace of globalization processes.
The accelerating pace of globalization has also facilitated migration
flows for economic reasons. Environmental refugees are inextricably
linked to economic migrants, a category of individuals that is also
sometimes termed “economic refugees.”
This article shares the claim of UNHCR, that individuals who
migrate for economic reasons are more appropriately understood as
economic migrants than as “economic refugees.” As UNHCR notes, “An
economic migrant normally leaves a country voluntarily to seek a better
disruption." Bates provides a detailed discussion of the
varying types and situations of environmental refugees.
For a discussion of the specific environmental factors
that precipitate movements, see Susan F. Martin, New
Issues in Refugee Research: Global Migration Trends and
Asylum, 7-8 (UNHCR, Working Paper No. 41, Apr. 2001). For
a typology of environmentally related disasters, see
Martin, supra note 26, at 7.
Graeme Hugo, Environmental Concerns and International
Migration, 30 I
. 105 (1996).
234 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
life. Should he or she elect to return home they would continue to
receive the protection of their government. Refugees flee because of
the threat of persecution and cannot return safely to their homes in the
Recognizing individuals as “economic
refugees” would create a situation in which individuals would have to
be classified according to whether or not they are truly unable to make
a living in their home country. Classifying between individuals who
were “forced” economic migrants and voluntary economic migrants
would be overwhelmingly challenging, if not impossible, for the
international community. The international refugee regime depends on
the willingness of states to provide assistance and protection to non-
citizens who meet the definition of a refugee. Providing assistance and
protection to “economic refugees” would perhaps destroy an already
strained international refugee regime. As Newman writes, “Mass
displacement owing to generalized violence and conflict or civil war, or
war-related conditions such as famine and homelessness, has strained
the application of [the 1951 Geneva Convention definition.] Economic
migrants further blur the definitions; there are often not clear
As will be argued in this article, encompassing
environmental refugees into the international refugee regime may de-
legitimize an already pressured system. Adding the category of
“economic refugees,” recognizing how many economic migrants there
are in the world and questioning how many of them would meet the
“economic refugee” definition, would completely overburden an
already politicized and encumbered system.
UNHCR, supra note 14.
Newman, supra note 18, at 6.
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 235
There are not clear distinctions between the different categories
of migrants; fluidity exists between all categories. The causalities of
displacement are complex and interrelated. Special links do exist
between environmental refugees and “economic refugees” – economic
migrants – which must be taken into consideration. According to El-
Hinnawi’s criteria, the third category of environmental refugees – those
who migrate based on the gradual deterioration of environmental
conditions – may be the closest to economic migrants. As
environmental degradation causes livelihood degradation, an individual
may be both an environmental refugee and an economic migrant.
Arguably in places where the environment is so destroyed that
individuals are unable to forge a livelihood, an individual may be forced
to leave to seek a better life. However, individuals who are displaced
due to environmental and/or economic reasons are not recognized as
refugees in the current international refugee regime.
Environmental refugees are of concern to both to the security of
the environment and the link between global security and the
environment. Under environment and security, security can be
understood as threefold: national security, societal security and human
security. National security is the security of the territorial state.
Societal security is the security and stability of society. And human
security “condenses the meaning of a regime oriented towards securing
the life and basic needs of individuals within and across boundaries.”
Finn Stepputat, Refugees, Security and Development:
Current Experience and Strategies of Protection and
Assistance in R
3-4 (Danish Inst. for Int'l
236 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
Human security is the security of the individual. Finn Stepputat
provides a useful clarification of the three concepts of security.
Concept Referent Threatened
National security The State Sovereignty and
Societal security Nations
National identity Migrants
Human security Individuals
Quality of life
National security and societal security are closely connected.
Environmental refugees are of concern to national and societal security
as environmental refugees flee their homes en masse. Karen Jacobsen
defines a “refugee influx” or a “mass influx of refugees” as:
that which occurs when, within a relatively short period (a few
years), large numbers (thousands) of people flee their places of
residence for the asylum country. There are many possible causes
of mass flight, including civil war and insurgency, ethnic or religious
persecution, environmental disaster, and famine. In cases such as
civil war and environmental disaster, refugees do not flee their
governments but rather the violence, disorder, and lack of resources
created by the crisis.
Stud., Working Paper 2004/11, 2004), available
Id. at 5.
Karen Jacobsen, Factors Influencing the Policy Responses
of Host Governments to Mass Refugee Influxes, 30 I
. 655, 657 (1996).
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 237
Mass influxes of refugees into the territory of a state, and into a
society, have the potential to create turmoil and confrontation, possibly
leading to conflict and violence.
Environmental refugees are considered to be a national and
societal security issue because mass influxes of individuals into a
society, and into a state, have the potential to create civil unrest and
conflict. As Myers writes:
Immigrant aliens present abundant scope for popular resentment,
however unjust this reaction. In the wake of perceived threats to
social cohesion and national identity, refugees can become an
excuse for outbreaks of ethnic tension and civil disorder, even
Stepputat notes that “The general perception of refugees as a security
threat, which increased in the wake of the end of the Cold War, has
been nurtured by a number of high-profile cases, including the Afghan
and the Rwandese refugee exodus.”
National and societal security
can be “threatened” by environmental refugees whether they cross
international borders or not. In other words, environmental refugees
are a security issue from the perspective of a nation/society controlling
its borders, as well as a nation/society facing an internal security
threat. Development projects which permanently alter the
environment may also cause the mass exodus of environmental
Myers, supra note 16, at 3.
Stepputat, supra note 31, at 12. Stepputat divides the
threats which are commonly perceived by host governments
into two larger categories – direct and indirect security
threats – and discusses these perceived threats in
detail. Id. at 10-13.
238 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
refugees from an area. This can be a national/societal security concern
as the distressed and vulnerable displaced individuals react to their
displacement and, if displaced, move into new areas, causing unrest
and instability. To illustrate the relationship between environmental
refugees and national/societal security, the Sardar Sarovar dam case
will be briefly examined.
The Sardar Sarovar dam is a long-standing project, and conflict,
that started in the 1960s.
The dam is a development project
displacing millions of individuals from the Narmada River Valley in
India. In the late 1970s, “the dam received funding from the World
Bank, leading to the emergence of a first period of activism by local
individuals under the leadership of the Narmada Bachao Andolan
The activism and protests led to withdrawal by the World
Bank in 1993, and the filing of a public interest litigation in the Indian
Supreme Court by the NBA. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the
dam “should be built as long as resettlement and rehabilitation was
effectively undertaken,” shifting the issue back to a political struggle.
The Sardar Sarovar dam case has become a political struggle and a
cause of civil unrest for over thirty years. As Arundhati Roy elaborates:
In India over the last ten years the fight against the Sardar Sarovar
dam has come to represent far more than the fight for one river.
For a complete and fascinating account of the Sardar
Sarovar dam, see Arundhati Roy, The Greater Common Good,
Int'l Envtl. L. Res. Centre, The Sardar Sarovar Case
(Narmada River), www.ielrc.org/india/narmada.php (last
visited Feb. 25, 2009).
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 239
This has been its strength as well as its weakness. Some years ago,
it became a debate that captured the popular imagination. That’s
what raised the stakes and changed the complexion of the battle.
From being a fight over the fate of a river valley it began to raise
doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is the
very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its
rivers? Its forests? Its fish? These are huge questions. They are
being taken hugely seriously by the State. They are being answered
in one voice by every institution at its command – the army, the
police, the bureaucracy, the courts. And not just answered, but
answered unambiguously, in bitter, brutal ways.
The Sardar Sarovar dam case illustrates how environmental refugees,
individuals, in this case, displaced by a massive development project (a
man-made environmental change), can become a security threat for
society and for the state. The civil unrest brought about by the Sardar
Sarovar dam divided society; claims that the NBA – “a handful of
activists” – were “holding the nation to ransom” demonstrated that
even the protesters were divided,
and resulted in the area around the
dam at times necessitating martial law. The conflict that evolved from
the displacement of millions of individuals, or environmental refugees,
erupted into national and societal unrest lasting for decades. Civil
unrest, which has the potential to lead to political upheaval, threatens
the security of both society and of the state. The case of the Sardar
Sarovar dam is a case of an internal security threat linked to
environmental refugees, but such threats can also materialize across
international borders. Refugee camps and shantytowns where
environmental refugees resettle may foster civil disorder, pandemics
Roy, supra note 36, at 9.
240 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
and political extremism which threaten the security of society and the
security of the state.
Sabina Alkire writes that the "objective of human security is to
safeguard the vital core of all human lives from critical pervasive
threats, in a way that is consistent with long-term human fulfillment.”
Environmental refugees face such critical pervasive threats. According
to M.E. Olson
Refugees differ from other, spontaneous or sponsored migrants,
largely in the circumstances of their movement out of one area to
another, and the effects these have on them in the settlement and
adjustment phases of their relocation. Refugees are forced to leave
their homes because of a change in their environment which makes
it impossible to continue life as they have known it. They are
coerced by an external force to leave their homes and to [move]
Environmental refugees face the destruction of their livelihoods. As
Andrew E. Shacknove writes, a refugee “is a person fleeing life-
Environmental refugees face, and flee, life-
threatening conditions through environmental disaster, environmental
Sabina Alkire, Conceptual Framework for Human Security 1
(Feb. 16, 2006) (unnumbered working paper for Comm'n on
Human Sec.), available at www.humansecurity-
chs.org/activities/outreach/frame.pdf (providing a working
definition of human security and shows how human security
can form the basis for operational responses by many
, Refugees as a Special Case of Population
Redistribution, in P
and L.Y.C. Lim eds., New York 1979).
Andrew E. Shacknove, Who is a Refugee?, 95 E
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 241
displacement and environmental degradation. To illustrate the
relationship between environmental refugees and human security, the
case of Vanuatu will be briefly examined.
In Vanuatu, a Pacific island chain, an entire village was displaced
due to climate change in December, 2005. The villagers from the
community of Lateu became environmental refugees when they were
forced to relocate “higher into the interior of Tegua, one of [Vanuatu’s]
northern most provinces, after their coastal homes were repeatedly
swamped by storm surges and aggressive waves linked with climate
In recent years, due to the high rates of flooding, the
villagers faced increased malaria and skin diseases among children
(with the increase in standing water for mosquitoes), accelerated
erosion rates, a breaching of natural defenses against the high tide
(such as coral reef) resulting in the destruction of agricultural land and
the deterioration of safe drinking water as their displacement forced
them away from fresh water springs. The Lateu villagers are a tragic
example of environmental refugees who faced life-threatening
conditions – threats to their human security.
Environmental refugees are also of concern to the security of
the environment. Environmental refugees who are displaced are often
concentrated in fragile or marginal environments, and “the potential
contribution to environmental degradation” can be seen as a threat to
Press Release, UNEP, Arendal, Pacific Island Villagers
First Climate Change "Refugees," (Dec. 12, 2005),
available at http://www.grida.no/news/press/1533.aspx.
242 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
In a sense, a cycle is created where
environmental degradation/disaster creates environmental refugees,
who most frequently move to low-income, marginalized environments,
causing further environmental degradation. To illustrate the
relationship between refugees and environmental degradation, the
case of Tanzania will briefly be discussed.
Tanzania is a country hosting thousands of refugees from
neighboring countries, with many refugee camps operating in western
Tanzania since 1994. UNHCR notes that “across all locations,
environmental problems commonly observed include deforestation (for
fuel, construction and cultivation), soil erosion, water depletion and
Furthermore, in western Tanzania some of the
areas selected for refugee relocation are near to protected areas (such
as game reserves and forest reserves) where environmental
degradation results through encroachment into these areas. Tanzania
is an example that demonstrates how refugees contribute to
environmental degradation, thereby threatening environmental
Richard Black, Forced Migration and Environmental
Change: the Impact of Refugees on Host Environments, 42 J.
. 261, 262 (1994).
UNHCR, International Workshop on Practising and
Promoting Sound Environmental Management in
Refugee/Returnee Operations, Geneva, Switz., Oct. 22-25,
2001, Environmental Challenges in Camp Establishement and
Management 78 (prepared by Grace Mungwe).
See Curtis J. Paskett, Refugees and Land Use: The Need
for Change in a Growing Population, 53 J.
57 (1998) (citing further examples of refugees
contributing to environmental degradation); see also
Harrison & Pearce supra note 1, at 87 ("Up to 10 million
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 243
These three extremely brief case studies demonstrate how
environmental refugees are connected to security at four levels:
national, societal, human and environmental. Environmental refugees
are a global security issue. However, it is extremely important that in
examining environmental refugees from the point of view of security,
environmental refugees as individuals are not viewed as a security
threat. As Stepputat warns, “there is a very short step from the
association between population movements resulting from internal
disorder, and threats to international peace and security, as formulated
in UN Chapter VII, to seeing refugees themselves at the threat.”
While mass movements of environmental refugees raise security
concerns, the individual environmental refugee, whose human security
is threatened, is not the threat. The individuals are not the security
issue. Environmental refugees are individuals who are the outcome of
environmental degradation, transformation and crisis. Thus
environmental refugees must not be treated as the problem; the
problems lie with the root causes displacing environmental refugees.
people fled drought and famine in the Sahel region of
Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, settling in wetter coastal
regions, including neighboring countries. At least half of
them never returned home. In Mauritania, environmental
degradation has helped to force the proportion of the
total population living in the coastal zone from 9 to 41
percent since 1968. In the 1980s, land scarcity caused by
a fast-rising population in Bangladesh led to conflicts
that drove 12 to 17 million Bangladeshis into neighboring
Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Millions fled
Rwanda in the 1990s during ethnic conflicts triggered in
part at least by the country's poverty, water scarcity and
declining soil fertility, all stemming from its very high
population density of 400 people per square kilometer.").
Stepputat, supra note 31, at 6.
244 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
Addressing these root causes, and providing environmental refugees
with assistance and protection is the only sustainable means to address
the multifaceted issues of security and environment.
In 2005, the UN Under-Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel
“emphasized the need to prepare now ‘to define, accept and
accommodate this new breed of “refugee” within international
Expanding the 1951 Geneva Convention to include
environmental refugees as a means to afford assistance and protection
to individuals displaced owing to environmental causes has been oft
suggested by academics and professionals alike. However, as Diane C.
Bates notes, “So many people can be classified under the umbrella of
‘environmental refugee’ that critics question the usefulness of the
As has been discussed, the international refugee regime is
already overburdened and stressed. Asylum has become an extremely
politicized policy option, and asylum systems in the developing world
Using the term “environmental refugee” to refer to all people forced
to leave their homes because of environmental change loses the
distinctive need of refugees for protection. It blurs the respective
responsibilities of national governments towards their citizens and
of the international community towards those who are without
protection. It also impedes a meaningful consideration of solutions
and action on behalf of the different groups.
ACUNU.org, supra note 5.
Bates, supra note 26, at 466.
Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Comm'r for Refugees, at the
Swiss Peace Foundation, Geneva (Oct. 30, 1992), available
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 245
Stephen Castles asks whether the concept of ‘environmental refugee’ is
a dangerous "distraction from central issues of development and
and the answer of this article is yes.
Incorporating environmental refugees into the international refugee
regime by expanding the 1951 Geneva Convention would blur the
responsibilities of governments and distract the international
community from the root causes for environmentally forced migration.
The complex relationship between environmental refugees and security
already creates a risk that environmental refugees will be viewed as
security threats themselves, providing a distraction from the causalities
of their migration. Providing assistance and protection to
environmental refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention would
merely be a temporary solution for the consequences of the problem,
and would not address what is causing these individuals to be uprooted
from their homes in the first place.
OOKING TO THE
The relationship between refugees and the environment is a
complex one, inter-woven and influenced by numerous other
factors – political, ethnic, social and economic. An effective
response must be a comprehensive one which helps to avert mass
movements, as well as adequately respond to, and solve them when
they do occur. An approach based on asylum alone will not be able
to sustain humanitarianism in the face of massive population
movements. It must be accompanied by strong measures in the
UNHCR, Evaluation & Policy Analysis Unit, New Issues in
Refugee Research, Working Paper: Environmental Change and
Force Migration: Making Sense of the Debate, 2 Working
Paper No. 70 (Oct. 31, 2002) (prepared by Stephen
Castles), available at
246 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
countries from which refugees originate in order to prevent and
resolve refugee flows.
Environmental refugees pose great challenges to the
international refugee regime. Recognizing that individuals are forced to
move from their homes due to environmental causes does not depend
on incorporation into the 1951 Geneva Convention. If the debate
remains centered upon whether or not to call these individuals
“environmental refugees” or “environmental migrants,” and whether
or not they should receive official assistance and protection as
refugees, the solutions will not progress to address the needs and
challenges of today. Environmental refugees move for a multitude of
complex reasons. Environmental disaster and environmental
degradation can be both natural and man-made. Forced migration can
be both international and internal. Environmental refugees – not as
individuals, but as mass movements of people – are challenging to
security at many levels. Perhaps the focus needs to be redirected.
Perhaps the concentration on “refugee” in environmental refugee
needs to be altered. Attention needs to be given to the “environment,”
to the root causes forcing individuals to migrate. The environment
needs to be taken into consideration at all points of the migration
process. Policy responses need to be directed to migration before it
happens, through sustainable development projects that do not
displace individuals and through measures to protect and support the
environment. Dowty and Loescher argue that “[a]cting early to avert
refugee crises can be demanding, but it is considerably less expensive
Ogata, supra note 51.
2009-10] Environment, Security & Environmental Refugees 247
than dealing with the fallout of a full-blown and protracted crisis.”
Acting early to avoid environmental refugee crises means going further
than just debating whether or not environmental refugees exist. Acting
early requires more than just providing assistance and protection to
environmental refugees after they have been displaced. Acting early
necessitates creating an environmental focus in development, in
international relations, in conflict resolution, and in the international
Alan Dowty & Gil Loescher, Refugee Flows as Grounds for
International Action, 21 I
43, 44 (1996).
248 Journal of Animal and Environmental Law [Vol. 1
Naturally Induced Disasters (NIDs)
Hail and Snow Storms
Technologically Induced Disasters (TIDs)
Dams (floods, etc.)
Rail or Airplane Crash
Economically Induced Disasters (EIDs)
Politically Induced Disasters (PIDs)
Socially Induced Disasters (SIDs)
Animal Rights Activism
Graeme Hugo, “Environmental Concerns and International
Migration,” International Migration Review, Vol. 30, No. 1
(Spring 1996): 112.