There is a new phenomenon in the global arena: environmental refugees. These are people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries, many being internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi-permanent if not permanent basis, with little hope of a foreseeable return.
As far back as 1995 (latest date for a comprehensive assessment), these environmental refugees totalled at least 25 million people, compared with 27 million traditional refugees (people fleeing political oppression, religious persecution and ethnic troubles). The environmental refugees total could well double between 1995 and 2010. Moreover, it could increase steadily for a good while thereafter as growing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on over-loaded environments. When global warming takes hold, there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.
Of the 25 million environmental refugees in 1995, there were roughly five million in the African Sahel, where a full ten million people had fled from recent droughts, only half returning home. Another four million, out of eleven million refugees of all types, were in the Horn of Africa including Sudan. In other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 million people were considered to be semi-starving due primarily to environmental factors, seven million people had been obliged to migrate in order to obtain relief food. In early 2000 Sudan featured eight million people who were officially considered at risk of starvation, with another six million in Somalia and three million in Kenya, plus several million others in other countries. A sizeable though undocumented proportion of these could be characterized as environmental refugees.
* Based on Myers, N. and Kent, J. (1995) Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena, The Climate Institute, Washington DC; and Myers, N. (2001), Environmental Refugees: Our Latest Understanding, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: 356: 16.1-16.5.
13 Economic Forum, Prague, 23-27 May 2005.