Environmental Migrants

Environmental migrations: juridical definitions

The migrations have always characterized the history of humankind. The deterioration or destruction of its environment could have been the cause. But what are the juridical consequences of migration? Do migrants always receive the same juridical treatment?

Do environmental migrations have a juridical recognition? We are in the era of migrations, even if not all are free to migrate and not always who migrates has the right to live regularly in another country. After the second World War we developed a system to protect human rights, including the right to asylum. For a long time, however, there has been talking about the crisis of the asylum system, since the right to asylum has been suffering strong restrictions.

Europe has become a Fortress and everywhere walls and physical barriers are built to prevent people from entering. Migrants are not all the same: to each juridical category correspond different rules for entrance and stay, and most of all different rights and degrees of protection. In this scenario the position of environmental migrants is not clear.

Are they voluntary migrants, light economic migrants, or forced migrants, like refugees? The increase in the number of persons forced to migrate for environmental reasons brought us to reflect about the juridical recognition of environmental migration, but an unanimous position on its definition is still lacking.

One of the first identified terms has been that of environmental refugees. Recently the term climatic refugee has been used to identify people that have been forced to leave their own Country, not because of a general mutation of their environment but because of climate change. Some international organizations (UNHCR, IOM and others), though, criticized the use of the term refugee in the case of environmental migrations. In fact, the Geneva Convention of 1951 foresees the recognition of the refugee status to who finds himself/herself outside of his/her country for fear of being persecuted. In the case of environmental migrants its often difficult to talk about the risk of persecution, Moreover, people hit by natural disaster voluntarily cross the borders of their Country. Instead of the term “refugee”, instead, the terms “displaced person” have been preferred.

The studies promoted by the European Parliament and European Commission refer to migrations induced by environmental causes. The use of terms like migrant, refugee or displaced person can lead to very different juridical consequences and to the recognition of different types of rights.

The questions surrounding the issue are numerous but the fundamental point is this: the creation a “juridical category” means to agree on the definitions, as this precludes an agreement on causes and effects, and to decide who to protect and who to exclude, who to accept and who to reject. It means recognizing an ongoing phenomenon and finding legislative solutions.

ASGI Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione.

Environmental migrants: juridical protection

Currently who migrates for environmental reasons risks to remain without legal protection. Who finds herself/himself outside of her/his own Country risks to be considered an irregular migrant and who finds himself/herself risks to suffer further violence and discriminations.

Some States attempted at identifying solutions, but they are isolated cases. Sweden and Finland, for example, provide for the recognition of asylum or humanitarian protection to those who cannot return to their country because of a natural disaster. In 2008 the Italian Home Office decided to suspend the repatriation measures for Bangladeshi
citizens residing in the country illegally in the wake of the crisis following the Sidr Cyclone. Italy, however, unlike Sweden and Finland, has not granted a form of special protection or a residence permit. At the theoretical level, we try to determine whether those who migrate for environmental reasons can be protected using existing legal instruments or if it is necessary to find new instruments .
The existing juridical instruments can be used only when the juridical categories on which they base themselves are valid for environmental migrants too. For example, as a result of rising sea level, some island states of the Pacific Ocean may disappear. Citizens of those countries could find themselves without a state. in this case he same citizens could maybe considered as Stateless People and find protection in the Convention about Statelessness.
In other cases the degradation of their own environment can cause instability or violation of human rights  or conflicts. Recent studies for example showed the connections between draught, migration and Sirian conflict. In these cases migrants could have been protected not just as environmental cases but because of the consequences of environmental degradation (generalized violence, persecutions, etc.).
Many scholars hold instead that environmental migrants, and most of all climatic refugees have different characteristics and needs than all other forced migrants and that for this reasons the existing juridical instruments are not adequate. In the past it has been understood that the status of refugee was not sufficient anymore, and so new forms of protection were identified, as subsidiary protection or humanitarian protection. In the same way today we need to find different forms of specific protection for who migrates for environmental reasons. These new instruments should establish the content of recognizable protection and its deriving rights, but also provide for the funds to grant actual protection and identify the actors responsible for its management. In other cases it has been underlined how mobility should be seen as a resource and not as a problem.
Industrialized countries, that are the main responsible for climate change, should favor and not contrast migration from the Countries most hit by climate change. In fact, migration represents in itself a form of adaptation: to facilitate migration could allow to increase the degree of adaptation in face ofenvironmental degradation. ASGI Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione

How does climate change affect migration

How can we make a distinction between the different patterns of migration caused by the effects of climate change? Temporary or permanent? Temporary migration can be a reaction when a sudden disaster – such as a typhoon, hurricane or earthquake – causes the movement of people.

In this case, when the disaster is over, people are willing to move back to their state of origin to reconstruct their ruined environment (like often in Bangladesh, for example). In other cases, when the disaster is slow – for example floods, droughts or desertification – and has a longterm effect on the environment, the population may move permanently (as in the case of the Philippines).

Forced or voluntary? To understand the difference between forced and voluntary environmental migration, I bring up 2 cases. A natural disaster such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines which displaced 4 million people, can force people to leave their homes as testified by people who have moved as a result ofclimate-related disasters Another example can be a longer adaptation strategy to climate change such as in the case of Mexican farmers who move to the USA to get jobs. “My grandfather, father and I have worked these lands. But times have changed …

The rain is coming later now, so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away, at least for a while. Each year I’m working for 3 to 5 months in Wyoming. That’s my main source of income.” Miguel, 45, Hueyotlipan, Mexico
Pakistan is an interesting example: as well as high numbers of displacees (due to floods and landslides) and the absorption of neighbouring refugees (from Afghanistan and Somalia), Pakistan also has a long history of voluntary migration and Pakistani diasporas are amongst the largest in the world Border crossing or internal migration?
Although moving within the borders of a country is more dominant when we talk about environmental migration (as the rural to urban migration in the Sahel, in many Latin American countries or in China), there are also many examples – like the Mexican farmers’ case – when people cross the borders of countries.

Hanna Mikes – Artemissziò Foundation

Environmental Migration, a matter of justice

In recent years the environment as a propeller of migration has been at the center of international debates revolving around definitions, data, situations, and policies concerning environmental migrants (see also:

  1. http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/f ree/MECC_Outlook.pdf;
  2. http://www.refworld.org/docid/53a3d9d64.html;
  3. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.aspNewsID=48201#.VVYU6SgwNqM;
  4. http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/index.phpmain_page=product_info&cPath=47&products_id=1430).

These analyses have shown how the environmental factor underpins all others. This becomes clear, for instance, if we make a distinction between the two main categories described in the reference texts: on the one hand, sudden, abrupt environmental events, on the other hand, slow and gradual processes.

Data regarding the first kind of environmental migration is easy to find, while the possibility to carry out reliable forecasts is quite limited. The second category is more difficult to define because its causes are often gradual and “silent”. However, the consequences of climate change on people’s life conditions are as radical as the consequences of natural disasters.
Some areas of the world are climate change “hot spots”, where current climate change acts as an accelerator of the existing conditions of environmental degradation. A clear example comes from a recent study published in the Global Environment journal, concerning the situation in the South Mediterranean countries. In these territories, global climate changes have caused droughts and rising temperatures for decades and forecasts confirm this trend. These changes have a strong impact on regional agriculture, including on water supplies and irrigation systems, on land fertility and therefore on the production of wheat and other primary goods, as well as on diseases and agricultural pests.

From agriculture and the rural economy, these problems affect the broader economic and social system. As the production of primary goods becomes more and more difficult, their demand raises, following the increasing global population. Prices go up, a lack of “food security” appears, generating, in many cases, a lack of social and political stability.

Egypt, for instance, became the biggest wheat importer in the world to satisfy the internal demand of wheat: more than 50% of their need is covered by imports. This level makes the country extremely vulnerable to sudden changes in international prices of agricultural products (note: grain demand is increasing since it is being used to produce biofuels and as animal feed) and at risk of increasing the poverty rates of its population. This example shows typical conditions pushing people to migrate; how can we distinguish environmental factors from social and political ones?

Procuring data on this kind of migration is an extremely hard task methodologically speaking, since it is difficult to ascertain the impact of the environmental cause alone on the decision to migrate. What we need is a change of perspective. Environmental migration can be considered a form of adaptation to climate change, but its very existence implies an issue of profound injustice : the first twenty countries most heavily affected by environmental upheavals are responsible for just 1% of the total world gas emissions, and 99% of natural disasters caused by climate changes occur in the countries of Global South.

The number of those forced to leave due to processes connected to climate changes, as we have seen, is almost impossible to measure. But those who have contributed most to gas emissions and climate changes are, without question, definitely not the ones paying the price.

Lucia Carbonari, Irene Fisco – Cies Onlus

Project co-funded by
the European Union

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

© 2014 Sameworld Project

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