By Ms. Amrita Chowdhury

Justice is defined as a quality of being righteous or fair. Philosophers and thinkers over the years have pondered over the concept of justice, and though a universal definition on justice could not be conceived, it is broadly defined as the proper ordering of people and things. All races and religion include a definition of justice in their codes of law and conduct. Sociologists consider codes of justice as one of the principal factors in describing an organised society. Of the different types of justice, distributive justice is directed at proper allocation of things amongst people, based on what they deserve. Thus justice, which binds the society together and is ingrained into the hearts and minds of people, has seeped into the purview of environment. Environmental problems do not affect everyone equally. Environmental injustice is the term used to refer to situations in which some individuals or groups bear disproportionate environmental risks, have unequal access to environmental goods like clean air, or have unequal voice in environment-related decision-making.
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By Ms. Amrita Chowdhury

What sets in with a bang attracts every attention, yet that which seeps in subtly has the potential to wreak havoc- unnoticed. One such issue that stands confronting the world today and promises to rank as one of the foremost crises of our times is the issue of Environmental Refugees. The two well known definitions are that of El-Hinnawi and Norman Myers. Environmental refugees are

“people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. By ‘environmental disruption’ in this definition is meant any physical, chemical and/or biological changes in the ecosystem (or resource base) that render it, temporarily or permanently, unsuitable to support human life.” (El-Hinnawi, 1985)

“persons who no longer gain a secure livelihood in their traditional homelands because of what are primarily environmental factors of unusual scope.” (Myers and Kent, 1995)

Causes of the environmentally induced refugee crisis

Long term environmental degradation, short term incidents, or development projects are mainly identified as reasons that can lead to displacement.
Long term factors leading to land degradation include salinization, over-cultivation, overgrazing, and/or deforestation. One of the most serious forms of land-gradation is known as "desertification," which occurs in dry-land eco-systems as a result of climatic variation (especially drought) and unsustainable human practices. Water shortages caused by water-pollution, drought, and fresh-water depletion contribute to desertification and crop-yield decline. These processes drive farmers off of traditional lands and create additional pressure on remaining croplands. Those who stay may face famine.

Short term incidents comprise of the natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Large scale displacements caused due to the Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina of 2005 and the environmental accidents such as that of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy are not unknown to anyone. Dams, irrigation canals and such other urban constructions too cause massive resettlement of masses.

Other factors such as malnutrition, landlessness, unemployment, pandemic diseases, population pressures, ethnic strife and faulty government policies act as additional push factor.

Problems with environmental refugees

Under international law, refugee is a person outside his or her country of origin, who is unable or unwilling to return there owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. The United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951), in fact contains the definition, rights and status of a ‘refugee’. Environmental refugees however are still to be officially recognized as a problem. Neither the Geneva Convention nor the UNHCR regard environmental displacement as a determinant of refugee-status, and surprisingly so, since in 1995 they totaled approximately 25 million, compared to the 27 million traditional refugees. According to an estimate the number would in all probabilities double between 1995 and 2010.

Of the 25 million refugees in 1995, about 5 million belonged to Sahel in Africa. Around 6 million of the 120 million refugees in China comprise the environmental refugees, having been obliged to abandon their farmlands due to shortages of agricultural plots in the wake of decades of population growth. In Mexico there are about one million environmental refugees every year. According to Prof. Norman Myers, Green College, Oxford University, U.K, in his article Environmental Refugees, An emergent Security Issue, the 1995 estimate of 25 million environmental refugees was cautious and conservative, and about 135 million people were threatened by desertification, and 550 million were subject to chronic water shortages.

One other problem in addressing the issue arises because at times it’s difficult to differentiate between environmental refugees and those impelled by economic problems.

Environmental Refugees should also be taken seriously because what may begin as a solely environmental problem may have far reaching repercussions and generates social political and economic problems. It therefore has the potential to lead to conflict and violence.

Addressing the problem of environmental refugees

It has been unanimously established by the experts and the researchers that environmental refugees pose a serious problem to the world and needs to be addressed without further delay. Some of the ways and means suggested by them can be stated as under

. International legal recognition of environmental refugees as proposed by Molly Conisbee and Andrew Simms, two distinguished British writers.
. Drafting and adoption of a completely new and separate international convention drawn upon environmental law as well as human rights and refugee law in order to avoid diluting protection for conventional refugees.
.Burden sharing as a way to address the problem. Nations that have historically been big polluters should acknowledge their "ecological debt" and shoulder responsibility to developing nations who will suffer the consequences
. The root causes of environmental problems need to be addressed and therefore the problem of climate change needs to be addressed. Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is one such desirable step.

India and the challenges of environmental refugees

India has to brace itself against the problem of environmental refugees which is surging at an alarming rate. According to experts such as Dr Hefin Jones, from Cardiff University., in the next 50 years, Bangladesh would produce about 15 million environmental refuges, and china will witness 30 million of them. India which is expected to give rise to 30 million of such refugees, would undoubtedly reel under the issue of influx from its neighbours. The experts believe that these refugees will be triggered by the rise in sea level, erosion and effects on soil fertility due to climate change. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC), by 2050 the estimated rise in the Bangla coastal areas would be one metre, and by 2100, it would be around two metres. The sea would thereby submerge most of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta which is a home to around 120 million inhabitants.

An exemplary incident of environmental refugees triggered by flawed government policies was witnessed by India recently, when 53 families of Chellipadam village in a Kochi Suburb had to flee their homes unable to stand the stench from the decaying garbage that had been dumped by the 25 lorries that carried them. The lorries which rolled in on 30th June, 2007 was escorted by the police forces and villagers, when they tried to block their entrance were badly beaten up. Many of the villagers fainted due to the ensuing stench in its backyard. On 6 July, the Junior Basic School at Brahmapuram in Vadavukode-Puthenkurissu Gram Panchayat, 17 kilometres away from Kerala's business capital Kochi, became a refugee camp accommodating about 200 odd men women and children. An entire village had been abandoned by its inhabitants owing to the city waste, an incident unheard of in India.

In India, large-scale displacement also takes place due to the dam projects and an estimated 33 million have been victims to such endeavours.


The problem of environmental refugees is undoubtedly emerging as one of the glaring problems that the world is confronted with today. The problem has to be addressed without further delay and some of these means and measures have been proposed in the paper. Extensive research however needs to be undertaken before concrete measures are identified and could be made binding either as a separate convention or as one recognized by the Geneva Convention or the UNHCR.