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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Fleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel

A growing awareness, in both North and South, of the environment, and its implications for future generations, has found a place on international agendas, but the immediate effects of environmental deterioration on human migration patterns have been given scant attention. Most of the studies to date have emerged from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a few from agencies within the United Nations. Most official and national government bodies, however, continue to treat those fleeing from insurmountable environmental problems as economic refugees. Preventive measures are usually geared to the macroeconomic policies of the country of origin, which often prompts governments to focus on industrial and agricultural growth at the further expense of those already living on marginal lands

People the world over are seeking asylum from lands that have exceeded their capacity to support life. either through migration to other countries or through displacement within their own nations. Countries receiving these migrants in turn become host to a whole set of troubling issues, not the least of which is environmental degradation

This unconventional class of refugees, increasingly referred to as 'environmental refugees', began receiving attention from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) as far back as 1985. In a report published by UNEP, environmental refugees were introduced as 'those 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 jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.'

Environmental refugees generally fit into three broad categories: those who have been temporarily displaced because of environmental stress, such as earthquakes or cyclones, and who will be able to return to their habitat, those who have been permanently displaced because of irreversible changes to their habitat, such as the establishment of dams and associated man made lakes; and those who migrate temporarily or permanently in search of a better quality of life because their original habitat can no longer meet their basic needs. The majority of environmental refugees are located in the least developed countries, mainly sub-Saharan Africa. The bulk of these people are subsistence farmers or nomads forced to abandon their unsustainable lands.

In a current research programme, the Climate Institute of Washington DC has estimated that, in addition to the 18 million refugees who fall within the established (and restricted) definition of the term, there are at least 10 million others who can be classified as environmental refugees. And the Institute recognises that even this does not give the complete picture, owing to the lack of official recognition by governments. The true figure for this category of refugee. which the Washington researchers believe has grown more rapidly than any other in recent years, may be as high as 25 million. In other words, there are up to 15 million additional people who have been forced to migrate for environmental reasons not acknowledged by the authorities. This total is expected to rise as growing families and deepening impoverishment force many subsistence farmers into a vicious cycle of poverty, undermining the long term productivity of their land in order to feed their families now.

Ecological distress in the Sahel

The Sahel region of Africa, stretching from Senegal to Chad, offers a startling landscape in which to explore the contributing factors leading to environmental migration. Scattered, unpredictable, torrential rainfall. coupled with very high daytime temperatures and almost zero humidity (excluding coastal areas), are the forces which shape the Sahel's distinctive flora and fauna The typical Sahelian landscape consists of wide, levelled plains of acacia shrub and tough grasses which, weather permitting, can sustain the pastoral livestock consisting of goats, camels, sheep, and cattle. During the dry season the land is often swept by hot, dust filled winds, causing much hardship to the farmer and nomad. Every 1000 km or so, the great rivers of the Sahel. the Senegal and the Niger, bisect and nurture patches of irrigated agriculture which are linked by rail, road and market towns to the interior capitals.

To date, the most serious environmental refugee movement ever witnessed occurred after the Sahelian drought in the early 1980s. Over 250 000 people in Mauritania, 20% of the population. joined the destitute farmers in the country's urban areas. Currently. more than half the population of Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, are refugees. In addition, nearly one million environmental refugees in Burkina Faso, a sixth of the nation's population, migrated to cities. In recent years, most environmental refugees have been moving towards the south and west to coastal West African nations. For instance, a large proportion of Sahelian refugees are concentrated in Cd'lvoire, making up one-fifth of the total population.

Environmental migration in the Sahel is the end result of several root causes These include, though the list is by no means exhaustive: natural resource mismanagement, in which human activity has compounded or created natural disasters by pursuing unsustainable development methods (overcultivation. overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation); demographic factors and carrying capacity (rising population places pressure for fuelwood, crop production, and water on an already finite environment, exacerbating soil erosion and desertification); and the political economy of Sahelian nations, in which external pressures upon governments of developing countries lead to resource misallocation and inequity Lastly, there is a root cause which encompasses all of the above in the shape of past and present unsustainable development practices, including current national development models. These are often conceived in response to crisis situations such as drought and famine, and are thus short-term prescriptions for solutions to long term problems.

The influx of refugees into host countries has serious consequences. especially for sub-Saharan Africa, where it is estimated that migration makes up over half the high annual growth rate of urban populations. In addition, most urban centres have an economic base that is ill-prepared to provide employment, housing, clean water and services. Flows of refugees into already crowded urban areas, coupled with declining employment opportunities, have resulted in the stagnation of human capital and, in many cases, have reduced the host country's ability to direct or fuel its own development. Furthermore, most refugees settle in camps or settlements located in often environmentally fragile areas. As a result of these pre-existing conditions. in conjunction with the disproportionately high population density in refugee settlements. as well as the lack of incentives for refugees to maintain the environment, host countries fall victim to yet further environmental problems.

A new definition of 'refugees'?

While migration from one place to another is a centuries-old practice in the Sahel region, the rise of the modern nation state, and subsequent boundary demarcations, have enlarged the concept of who is a refugee. Some argue that the widely accepted view of refugees as being individuals who decide to seek asylum out of fear of political, racial, or religious persecution, or who leave their homes because of civil strife. must be expanded to include those people displaced because of environmental degradation. Redefining the concept of refugees to include environmental refugees would permit a realistic appraisal of the underlying causes and possible solutions which force people to flee degraded and unproductive lands. The sea of neglect surrounding the status of the environmental refugee has enormous significance for displaced individuals as their refugee status determines the amount of support and protection they receive, as well as having implications for a long-term resolution of their plight.

Lacking official recognition as environmental refugees, those individuals who flee unsupportable ecosystems are usually viewed as economic migrants. Some maintain that this is appropriate as the term 'refugee' should be reserved for those fleeing political or human-induced factors. Following this line of reasoning are those who feel that broadening the refugee definition to include the environmentally displaced would detract from institutional responsibility in terms of prevention and response. While it is difficult in many cases to discriminate between those refugees forced to migrate because of environmental considerations and those driven out by economic factors, critics argue that it is imperative to recognise the close association between environmental degradation and population movements.

Whatever term one chooses to use to describe the environmentally displaced, it does not alter the challenges facing Sahelian governments and development organisations in halting the migration of environmental refugees A good start would be to institutionalise measures that take natural resource depletion into account. To this end, local non-governmental organisations should work towards ensuring that a system of accountability is institutionalised by governments and aid agencies. Tapping indigenous knowledge also offers a wealth of possibilities for achieving alternatives to the current confusion and inefficiency surrounding environmental protection. By giving voice to the many who experience the harshness of poverty, those in the development field can become better educated and more actively involved in helping to formulate sustainable policies that work.