The current system for dealing with refugees is based on the Geneva Convention of 1951. It came into being in Europe as a result of the Second World War and was designed to deal with issues of war, ideology and religion. It is in need of urgent overhaul to cope with the new refugee problems generated by environmental crisis.
The case for granting refugee status to people fleeing the destruction of their environment is both a moral and political one. The richer countries responsible should pay the costs of their own pollution: they should not expect poor nations and people to bear the brunt of somebody else’s lifestyle. Forcing rich states to face up to their responsibilities on environmental refugees could also generate greater political will for international action on the environment – particularly on issues such as climate change. But there are important economic and security issues. If entire nations become uninhabitable, or have to be relocated, current immigration policies may well collapse under the strain. As in the case of Israel and Palestine, displaced and alienated populations may become a breeding ground for terrorism.
Policies that cause harm to people but are pursued in full knowledge of their damaging consequences should be classed as environmental persecution. Current US energy plans will increase its emissions of greenhouse gases- the gases responsible for global warming and climate change – by 25 per cent by 2010. They will thus create millions more environmental refugees. The Geneva Convention defines a refugee as someone forced to flee because of a well-founded fear of persecution, be it religious, political or « other ». A well-founded fear of starvation or drowning is a compelling reason to escape. The Geneva Convention should be expanded to incorporate a new category of “ environmental persecution “.
Steps to achieve this could begin with a global commission, sponsored by the UN, reporting to the UN Security Council and the General Assembly on the implications of the growing number of environmental refugees. This should also examine the threat posed to nationhood by environmental problems such as global warming. Other suggested changes include:
Updating the Geneva Convention. Granting environmental refugees proper status under the convention will provide them with internationally assured protection, independent of and separate from the actions of their own governments. Often these governments do not have the resources or the will to help; sometimes they are themselves directly culpable.
Writing a new convention. An alternative to an amended Geneva Convention is a new convention specifically focusing on people whose way of life is being destroyed by a lost, ruined or degraded environment.
Compensating for ecological debts. The world needs to establish an internationally agreed measure of ecological debt, focused initially on the biggest issue, climate change and the use of fossil fuels. This would clarify the financial and environmental obligations of ‘over-polluting ’ countries, particularly the contribution they should make to climate-related problems such as the growth in environmental refugee numbers.
Andrew Simms and Molly Conisbee – Environmental Refugees, The Case for Recognition. Chapter 6. A new status for environmental refugees. P.36