Climate refugees: A 21st century challenge

In early 2008, Tsitsi Madavo, 67, was forced to abandon her village after a severe hailstorm hit Muzabarani, a village in central Zimbabwe, destroying her three huts, crops and livestock.

Every year, as in Muzarabani, environmental excesses around the world force millions of people to abandon their homes in search of places that are perceived to be safer. The impact of extreme weather will be felt more heavily among the poor and marginalized people.

Since time memorial, climate change processes have devastated human settlements, resulting in untold human suffering and vulnerability to poverty and disease. As the world increasingly grapples with the phenomena of climate change, there are fears that it will lead to the internal or international displacement or refugee situations.

There is scientific evidence that the number of people killed, injured or displaced as a result of unpredictable weather patterns has been on the rise in recent decades.

For instance, according to a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year, it is likely that global warming will make future cyclones more intense, thereby worsening the magnitude of human suffering.

Because many people will not be able to bear the brunt of climatic change, they will be left mobile and vulnerable by the ravages of the environment. It is estimated that 50 million people will be environmentally displaced by 2010.

There is no doubt that global climate change has an impact on the movement of people. When the environment undergoes degradation or devastation as a result of extreme weather, it forces people to become mobile or displaced.

As people move to new locations, they are likely to inflict further environmental damage as all new human settlements do. Environmental experts see an increased potential for uncontrolled and potentially destabilizing migration streams as a result of climatic and other environmental changes in the 21st century.

UNHCR defines environmentally displaced persons as persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not the sole one.

“Environmental migrants are persons or group of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad,” states the International Organization of Migration.

According to a paper titled “Addressing Environmentally Induced Population Displacements: A Delicate Task”, environmentally induced mobility can be considered a type of forced migration: the move is involuntary, and a certain amount of coercion is implicit in the fact that push fac tors in the origin area could be more important than pull factors in destinations.

“In developing regions, permanent environmentally induced displacement happens in a less organized way, and generally following already established migrations trends (for example, rural-urban migration flows). Permanent displacement is usually local and not international, moving to less dangerous places nearby (for example higher ground if available),” states the paper.

Population mobility as response to environmental impacts is influenced by the socio-economic, cultural and institutional contexts, and by the historical development of the interactions between population and environment. The movement of people due to extreme environmental conditions is one that needs increased attention in order to ensure that appropriate policies and practices are in place to assist affected persons.

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