Ecological Refugees

I have coined the term “ecological refugees” to include both environmental refugees1, the newer concept of “climate refugees”, and other categories of displaced persons, including those fleeing various industrial and chemical hazards.2 In 1985 Essam El Hinawi said:

Environmental refugees are defined as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.

In turn, he defines “environmental disruption” as “any physical, chemical and/or biological changes in the ecosystem (or the resource base) that render it temporarily or permanently unsuitable to support human life”.

The magnitude of the problem cannot be overstated, as correct estimates range from 50 million to as much as 200 million of refugees. Hence we are faced with millions of people in forced migrations, escaping from grave environmental and climate episodes, or various forms of industrial “development” from mining and extracting industries, which affect primarily Indigenous and local communities. In addition, climate change engenders droughts and floods in southern continents, and glacial melts in the Arctic and northern regions.3

But the millions escaping harsh and unlivable conditions are, for the most part, non Convention refugees, according to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees4 with its specific definition and requirements, based on “the well-founded fear of persecution for reason of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group”.

For most, the category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) appears to be a better fit.5 However, although today and tomorrow’s ecological refugees do not fit the 1951 definition, IDPs have no legal protection in international law, that is, they are dependent on humanitarian aid, or on charity from international organizations or special donors.

The conditions that force their flight are—for the most part—anthropogenic in origin and—whether they are the result of climate change or of industrial operations, the “environmentally displaced”6, have not originated the conditions from which they flee, nor have they benefitted from them.

Therefore it would seem that justice would require—at best—the eliminated or at least the modification of the practices that result in the gross human rights violations that affect too many people, from the DRC and Darfur, to Kishmaref, Alaska; from Ecuador and Guatemala to Palestine. In Contrast, Europe is tightening its borders as are the US and Canada, the latter, applying the 1951 Convention literally, with is inappropriate and anachronistic mandates. The Convention was originally designed after WWII, to deal with the individuals and groups displaced and persecuted at that time. It could not have anticipated the displacement of so many people whose plight does not specifically include deliberate persecution on any grounds, the only basis for granting asylum today. Industrial activities that give rise to climate change, or the development activities of “free trade” are not promoted and practiced with the intent to harm or even eliminate persons or communities as “peoples”, although that is often the result that follows those activities.

The currently available jurisprudence, such as it is, is primarily related to climate change. For instance, the Petition by the Inuit Peoples (Petition on Human rights-Violations Resulting from Global Warming Caused by the United States, Sheila Watt-Cloutier and others, December 2005), requesting redress primarily from the US Administration under the Bush Administration, was rejected by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, as there was “no proof that the US had contributed substantially to the glacial melts they were experiencing”. However, most Inuit and other people s of the High Arctic are not refugees, in the sense that they cannot (and do not want to) leave their territories.

In contrast, the people of Shishmaref (Kivalina, Alaska) are facing their town sinking into the sea because the protective ice-barrier they had has melted, and the territory and town is disappearing because of global warming. Some San Francisco lawyers brought their case to court, under the law of “public nuisance”, but also under “civil conspiracy” on the part of 28 Gasoline and electric companies primarily EXXON, because of the deliberate and well-funded campaign against the existence first, then the harms engendered by, climate change They lost, but the case is under appeal now. The US Corps of Engineers anticipates a cost of over 400US$ mill. to relocate the community elsewhere. In that case, they would indeed be ecological refugees. In addition, by losing their own land, with their cultural/ religious landmarks, they would probably cease to exist as a “people”, although the individual inhabitants would be saved.

It is necessary to start by pressuring governments to treat those who arrive at their borders in a humane and helpful manner, and to ask judges and courts to interpret existing instruments and cases in a more liberal manner. Finally, and most important, we need to ensure that our representatives at international meeting and the UN are prepared and willing to ask for a much stronger position in this regard. This is perhaps the most important issue in a globalized world: the UN reports, and the documents of its appointed Rapporteurs good as they are, are often unheeded and unenforced, as are its General Comments, following the United Nations Human Rights Committee.


1 (a term defined by Norman Myers, in 1993, “Environmental Refugees in a Globally Warmed World”, Bioscience, vol.43 ^

2 Westra, Laura, 2009, Environmental Justice and the Rights of Ecological Refugees, Earthscan, London, UK ^

3 Ford et al., 2006, “Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Arctic: A Case Study form Arctic Bay, Canada”, Global Environmental Change ^

4 189 UNTS 150, into force 22 April 1954 ^

5 Hathaway, J. 2005, The Rights of Refugees Under International Law, Cambridge, UK ^

6 Prieu, Michel, 2008, “Draft convention on the International Status of Environmentally Displaced Persons”, Revue Europénne de Droit de l’Environment, No.4, p.381 ^