ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 52
Columns - Inside the glass house  

Defining a new-type of refugee

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK-- Perhaps one of the clear-cut routes to West-bound migration — as some Sri Lankan expatriates have discovered — is to seek "political asylum".

But still no one in his right mind has sought "mental asylum" — although the concept may be tempting to those in sheer desperation to set foot on Canadian, European or American soil.

Historically, the concept of political refugees was tailor-made to suit the ideological battle during the Cold War as the Western world sought to accommodate asylum seekers, including scientists and political dissidents, fleeing from "repressive regimes" in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Children sleep behind a stack of earthen pots used for storing water in the outskirts of Ahmadabad, India, Thursday, May 24, 2007. Climate change may lead to severe food and water shortages for an extra 130 million people across Asia by 2050 unless international action is urgently taken, according to a U.N. report, adding that water shortages will also become more common in India as the Himalayan glaciers decline. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugees as people living outside of their own country because of "a well-founded fear of persecution" on account of their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social or political group. The failure of a state to protect its citizen is also grounds for political asylum.

But during the last few decades most refugees have really been "economic refugees" fleeing primarily from poverty and unemployment in search of a better life outside their home countries.

The US and Canada are two Western nations which also provide asylum on grounds of gender-based discrimination and persecution.

In a landmark case in 1991, a Saudi Arabian woman claimed refugee status in Canada on the ground that she would be arrested and tortured by Saudi police if she returned home because she had run away from an "arranged marriage" by her parents.

After her application was turned down twice, the Canadian Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt granted her permanent residency on humanitarian grounds. And thereby Canada became the first country to recognize gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum.

But the increasing threat from global warming and climate change is spawning a new breed of displaced persons: environmental refugees.

The threat of sea-level rise — and the possibility of tiny islands such as the Maldives and Tuvalu vanishing from the face of the earth after being swallowed by the sea — has raised new fears and new challenges. Should the threat of environmental catastrophes be legitimate ground for asylum and refugee status?

The South Pacific island of Tuvalu has reached a bilateral agreement under which New Zealand will accept the entire population of Tuvalu, numbering nearly 12,000, as environmental refugees in the event of rising sea-levels.

According to Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation in Britain and author of a book titled "Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition", scholars are predicting that about 50 million people worldwide will be displaced by 2010 because of rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, weather-induced flooding and other serious environmental changes. By one rough estimate, as many as 100 million people worldwide live in areas below sea-level.

According to the United Nations, about a third of the world's 50 least developed countries (LDCs), described as the poorest of the world's poor, are threatened by global warming and sea-level rise, including Kiribati, the Maldives, Comoros, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The numbers of potential environmental refugees are both varied and staggering, according to different estimates: 50 million more by the end of this decade (UN University); 150 million by 2050 (Oxford University); 50 million by 2060 in Africa alone (the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi) and; one billion displaced globally by 2050 (Christian Aid).

At a UN seminar last week, Brian Gorlick, senior policy advisor at the New York Office of the U.N. refugee agency, pointed out there is no agreed definition of environmental refugees — in international law, at the United Nations or even among environmental experts.

The closest to an acceptable definition reads: "People who are displaced from or who feel obliged to leave their usual place of residence, because their lives, livelihoods and welfare have been placed at serious risk as a result of adverse environmental, ecological or climatic processes and events."

These "processes" include climate change, global warming, desertification, land degradation, rising sea-levels, deforestation, soil erosion and crop depletion. And "events" include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, droughts and famines.

But according to Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, the pioneering environmental refugees may well have originated in the United States.

Brown says those who track the effects of global warming had assumed that the first flow of climate refugees would likely be with the abandonment of Tuvalu in the South Pacific or other low-lying islands.

"We were wrong. The first massive movement of climate refugees has been that of people away from the Gulf Coast of the United States," Brown said.

He points out that Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 forced a million people from the state of New Orleans and other small towns on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts in the United States to move inland, either within states or neighbouring states, such as Texas and Arkansas.

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