Warming To Multiply
World’s Refugee Burden
By Allistair Lyon
19 June, 2007
BEIRUT - If rising sea levels force the people of the
Maldive Islands to seek new homes, who will look after them in a world
already turning warier of refugees?
The daunting prospect of
mass population movements set off by climate change and environmental
disasters poses an imminent new challenge that no one has yet figured
out how to meet.
People displaced by global
warming — the Christian Aid agency has predicted there will be
one billion by 2050 — could dwarf the nearly 10 million refugees
and almost 25 million internally displaced people already fleeing wars
“All around the world,
predictable patterns are going to result in very long-term and very
immediate changes in the ability of people to earn their livelihoods,”
said Michele Klein Solomon of the International Organisation of Migration
overwhelming to see what we might be facing in the next 50 years,”
she said. “And it’s starting now.”
People forced to move by
climate change, salination, rising sea levels, deforestation or desertification
do not fit the classic definition of refugees — those who leave
their homeland to escape persecution or conflict and who need protection.
But the world’s welcome
even for these people is wearing thin, just as United Nations figures
show that an exodus from Iraq has reversed a five-year decline in overall
Governments and aid agencies
are straining to cope with the 10 million whose plight risks being obscured
by debates over a far larger tide of economic migrants — and perhaps
future waves of fugitives from environmental mayhem.
The United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR), which marks World Refugee Day on Wednesday, says
the global political climate for refugees has already become harsher.
“They used to be welcomed
as people fleeing persecution, but this has been changing — certainly
since 9/11, but even before then,” said William Spindler, a UNHCR
spokesman in Geneva.
intolerance, political manipulation by populist politicians who mix
up the issues — the whole debate on asylum and migration has been
confused,” he said.
People fleeing threats at
home and those seeking a better life could be in the same group washing
up on a Spanish beach, but Spindler said it is vital to keep the distinction
between them to provide effective protection to those who need it.
Whatever their motives, migrants
deserve to be treated with dignity and as human beings, he added. “We
have seen people in the Mediterranean in boats or hanging onto fishing
nets for days while states discuss who should rescue them.”
Before sectarian violence
exploded in Iraq last year, global refugee numbers had been shrinking.
The Taliban’s overthrow in Afghanistan, along with peace deals
in trouble-spots like Congo, Liberia, Angola and southern Sudan, had
allowed millions to return home — although 2.1 million Afghans
have yet to do so.
“I’m not suggesting
that life is all beautiful in those countries, but there have been advances,”
said Joel Charny, vice-president of Washington-based Refugees International.
“The big exception
is Iraq, the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world,” he
said. “Everyone’s fleeing. It’s really broad-based
insecurity displacing people in Iraq and outside.”
The UNHCR says 2.2 million
Iraqis have fled abroad and over two million have left their homes inside
the country, where they are much harder to track or assist than those
Around the world, nearly
25 million people are internally displaced — fleeing for the same
reasons as refugees, but lacking international recognition or protection.
While Iraq and Darfur often
hit the headlines, aid officials worry about the “forgotten crises”
that uproot people within national borders, often far from television
“Hardly anyone is concerned
about the Central African Republic,” said Sarah Hughes, UK director
of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “And in Chad for
instance, refugees from Darfur get three times more provision than Chadian
Recognizing the scale of
internal population upheavals, the UNHCR last year took under its wing
some 13 million displaced people, many of whom had to be reached in
“In Darfur, the problem
is not funding but security and access to the people we are trying to
help,” said Spindler.
The bloodshed in Iraq has
made it a virtual no-go zone for international humanitarian staff, but
aid workers also grapple with violent environments anywhere from Afghanistan
“The biggest challenge
is security, the shrinking of humanitarian space,” said the IRC’s
Refugees may also feel the
world has less room for them as they try to cross borders into countries
where hostility to migrants of all sorts has grown, compared with the
Cold War era when fugitives from communism won sympathy and asylum.
“The reaction now is
skepticism,” said Charny. “It’s: ‘Who is this
scam artist trying to get a job in our country?’”
North Koreans fleeing to
China or Zimbabweans crossing illegally into South Africa are widely
treated as economic migrants though many may also be escaping persecution,
“We have to maintain
a refugee protection regime that doesn’t just assume everyone
is an illegal economic migrant,” Charny added. “That tendency
exists in the industrialized countries and in the wealthier countries
of the global south.”
With those escaping environmental
upsets likely to swell flows of migrants and refugees, any quest for
legal definitions tying governments to new obligations might prove tricky.
“That’s not to
say that practical arrangements can’t be found to deal with this,”
said the IOM’s Klein.
The focus should be on contingency
plans for nightmare scenarios that could prove all too real, Charny
“How will we approach
displacement when, say, the Maldives go under?” he asked. “We
have to plan for it, but in a way that doesn’t lead us all to
start jumping out of windows.”
© Reuters 2007.
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