Ranks of 'environmental refugees' swell, calls grow for better definition, recognition, support

Amid predictions that by 2010 the world will need to cope with as many as 50 million people escaping the effects of creeping environmental deterioration, United Nations University experts say the international community urgently needs to define, recognize and extend support to this new category of 'refugee'.

In a statement to mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction (October 12), UNU's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn says such problems as sea level rise, expanding deserts and catastrophic weather-induced flooding have already contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions.

Unlike victims of political upheaval or violence, however, who have access through governments and international organizations to such assistance as financial grants, food, tools, shelter, schools and clinics, "environmental refugees" are not yet recognized in world conventions.

UNU says the number of people forced to move by environment-related conditions already approximates and may someday dwarf the number of officially-recognized "persons of concern," recently calculated at 19.2 million (footnote 1). Indeed, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

"There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena," says UNU-EHS Director Janos Bogardi. "This new category of 'refugee' needs to find a place in international agreements. We need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations."

Victims of sudden and highly-publicized catastrophes like the 2004 Asian tsunami or the recent US Gulf Coast hurricanes benefit from the mobilization of private and public sector generosity and humanitarian relief. Countless millions of others aro

Contact: Terry Collins
United Nations University

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