Publications > Poverty Times #1 > Eco-refugees

Poverty Times #1


Each year thousands of people flee from advancing deserts, dwindling forests and industrial disasters such as Chernobyl and Bhopal.
By Marina Julienne

What do the Chernobyl disaster, the Three Gorges dam in China and the spread of the Sahel have in common? In each case natural and manmade influences have forced thousands, sometimes millions of people, to leave their land or country of origin. According to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) 2001 report, natural and manmade disasters caused an estimated 25 million eco-refugees in 1998.

Environmental disasters have forcibly displaced large populations throughout history. Volcanic eruptions, tidal waves and droughts have caused thousands to abandon homes and fields. The filling of the Akosombo reservoir in Ghana displaced 80,000 people in 1964, while in Egypt and Sudan the Aswan dam uprooted 100,000 people (1). The Chinese government plans to move a million people to help it use the Yangtze River dam.

The depletion of natural resources, destruction of the environment, population growth and other factors are causing unprecedented movements of population. Of the nine million refugees in the Commonwealth of Independent States (12 of the 15 states after the break-up of the Soviet Union), 700,000 had to leave their homes because of environmental damage: 375,000 people were displaced after Chernobyl; 100,000 left Kazakhstan due to pollution of 35,000 square kilometres of the Aral Sea; and more than 150,000 fled the Semipalatinksk area (north of Kazakhstan) where one of the largest nuclear test sites is located. New Zealand is preparing to take in refugees from the Tuvalu islands next year: they cover 26 square kilometres, are home to 11,000 people and are at high risk of serious flooding due to rising sea levels. A similar fate awaits the 300,000 inhabitants of the Maldives.

The world is facing new challenges: how are we to deal with all these people forced into environmental exile? If people are driven off land due to environmental catastrophes, is it the fault of humans (climate change) or natural disaster (flooding)? And if the former, should we consider these people to be refugees and should the international community take care of them?

Under current law there is no such thing as an environmental refugee. In Article 1 of the 1951 Geneva Convention, the term “refugee” applies only to a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or ... unwilling to return to it.” If people are displaced due to environmental damage, there is no question of persecution. And these “eco-migrants” do not cross borders; rather, they travel as short a distance from the disaster zone as they can.

Many people forced into exile for ecological reasons have to claim political refugee status. For instance, in 1992 the thousands of people who fled the drought in Mozambique had political refuge status in Zambia. Gaining this status was easy since Zambia needed to increase its refugee population to qualify for more international aid (3). After the drought ended, the eco-refugees returned to Mozambique before official repatriation started. The problems faced by ecological refugees are unique. Their status as such needs to be legally acknowledged. The world – as well as individual countries – need to take responsibility for these mass migrations and take care of their victims – and prevent the environmental damage that may exile many more.

Marina Julienne
Translated by Harry Forster

Article published in Québec-Sciences available at

1. Déplacés et réfugiés, la mobilité sous contrainte, in the Colloques et Séminaires collection, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), 1999.
2. Hervé Domenach and Michel Picouet, Population and Environment, in the Que-sais-je? no. 3556, PUF(Presse universitaire de France), 2000.
3. Interview with Véronique Lassailly Jacob.