Environmentally Forced Migration and Human Rights

Environmentally Forced Migration and Human Rights

J. M. M. van der Vliet-Bakker (University of Leiden, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8909-9.ch019
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In an era of accelerating environmental degradation, a growing number of people will be affected by its effects. Some of those people will be forced to migrate, both internally and cross-border. Under current international law, those people are not recognized as a specific category entitled to protection. Many protection gaps in international law can be identified for these ‘environmentally forced migrants'. Human rights law can fill some of those gaps by offering minimum standards of treatment, procedural protection or complementary protection. This chapter systematically assesses these possibilities.
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Ii. Background

This section introduces the concept of environmentally forced migration. It discusses more in depth two of the conceptual challenges: causality and the element of force. Finally the legal protection gaps for environmentally forced migrants are identified.

The concept of people moving as a result of environmental degradation is not new. Migration such as circular migration or labour migration to supplement family income are common adaptation strategies. Leaving environmentally degraded and agriculturally unsustainable regions can be seen as a legitimate coping strategy for affected populations. In addition, migration could potentially help slow the process of environmental degradation and allow those who remain in affected communities to adjust their livelihood strategies by changing their agricultural practices or, for instance, shifting to non-agricultural activities. (Morton et al. 2008)

What is new, is the scale and impact of the environmental degradation. Already in the 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentioned migration as one of the major effects of climate change (IPCC 1990). As there is no institution that monitors environmentally forced migration, there is no exact information on how many people are displaced for this reason. The number of people being displaced that are quoted in the literature show a huge variety. This variety can be explained by the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of environmentally forced displacement and thus the scope of ratione personae is unclear. The experts on environmentally forced migration can broadly be divided into two main groups: the alarmists and the sceptics. The alarmists emphasise a causal relationship between climate change or other forms of environmental degradation and displacement. The alarmist school of thought expects hundreds of millions, or even up to a billion, people to be displaced as a consequence of environmental degradation. The estimated numbers of climate or environmental refugees are often used to sensitise public opinion and decision-makers to the issue of global warming. Perhaps the best-known estimate for future forced migration as a result of climate change, was made by alarmist Professor Norman Myers (2005). The critics main arguments are that the concept is simplistic and that the empirical evidence for the causal relationship between environmental degradation and migration is scarce (Black 1998; Wood 2001; Castles 2002). As a result, their estimates on people displaced due to environmental degradation are much lower.

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