“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.  They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.” (LS, 25)

praised be 17-09

Migration has always been present in the history of mankind.  However, in the last few decades there has been a dizzying increase in human migration, not only among those who voluntarily seek out new horizons in the search of jobs and academic opportunities, but also – and primarily – among those who are forced to leave due to natural disasters which are ever more frequent and intensive, destroying wide geographical areas, or due to the environmental deterioration as a result of the serious effects of drought and climate change, all of which has given birth to a new category of migrants: environmental refugees.

In 1990, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a warning that the predominant problem facing the 21st century would be the forced migration of people due to global warming, becoming a “massive threat to human development” [1], food security and access to water for vast regions because of desertification.  According to the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) almost one third of the world’s population lives in areas where each person has access to less than 1,000 m3 of water per year.  And by 2025 the IPCC estimated that between 2.9 to 3.3 billion people will suffer from severe water shortages, figures that will rise from 3.4 to 5.6 million by 2050, that is to say, almost twice as many people affected in only 25 years.[2]

In Chile, the shortage or absence of this vital resource has already led to extensive forced migration in the north of the country, and this has quickly spread to the inland valleys of the III (Atacama) and IV (Coquimbo) regions, impacting traditional forms of agriculture.  Meanwhile, in the south, the growth of the model of monocrop plantations of Radiata Pine and eucalyptus trees has drained areas where water resources used to be plentiful, causing human displacement to large cities, with severe instability on their quality of life and exposing them to high levels of discrimination.  The same thing that is happening to immigrants and refugees, despite migration being a human right.

Today, nine out of ten natural disasters are climate-related, and according to the International Red Cross its impact on the population is five times greater than the number of people affected by armed conflicts in the world.  Moreover, various estimates put the figure of 50 million on those people who are displaced due to the effects of climate change, a figure which would increase to between 150 to 250 million by 2050 (IPCC, IOM).

It is highly disturbing that despite the magnitude of these forced migrations and their projections, victims of environmental displacement do not have a specific international body to protect their human rights and influence the actions of the States, since the rules of international humanitarian law are not applicable to environmental displacement as recognized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Up until now addressing climate change was merely in relation to the atmosphere. It is time that the States assume responsibility to mitigate and resolve the harmful impacts on thousands of people who are now desperately seeking refuge, crossing borders and seas, where they often meet their own death. How much longer can we wait?

More Information:

Environmental displacement, globalization, climate change: A view from Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples


[1] UNDP (2008), Human Development Report 2007-2008. Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr_20072008_summary_english.pdf

[2] IPCC (2014). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Collaboration: Paulina Acevedo Menanteau. Journalist and Human Rights Communication Officer, Observatorio Ciudadano.

Mail: pacevedo@observatorio.cl

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