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Oil Brown : International community needs to Pay More attention to 'environmental Refugees

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Oil Brown, Associate Research Fellow at Chatham House

Oil Brown is associate Research Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House. He was previously a senior programme Manager at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He holds a degree in anthropology and history from the University of Glasgow, a Master's degree in International Studies from the University of Otago in New Zealand, and a Master's degree in environmental Science from the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. His main research areas are climate policy, international trade, and refugee migration.


International community needs to Pay More attention to 'environmental Refugees

1.You wrote the article Environmental Displacement: Human mobility in the Anthropocene-Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern in 2017. Now, nearly four years later, have the environmental problems of human mobility improved? What are the most prominent environmental issues that catalyzed the mobility in the past four years ?


Thanks for the question – it’s great to be talking to you about these important issues. In essence, the environmental challenges that were driving people from their homes in 2017 haven’t gone away. They are still here, and, in many cases, they are getting worse. Greenhouse gases are still accumulating in our atmosphere, the impacts of climate change are gathering pace while pollution and large infrastructure projects are still displacing people. Meanwhile, what is perhaps the defining population movement of last century – people moving from rural areas into cities – is still a major feature in many countries. Often this means that people move into informal and unplanned settlements around rapidly growing cities. Such settlements are typically poorly served with services and vulnerable to natural hazards such as flooding, landslides and storm surges that are among the major environmental factors forcing people to leave their homes.

2.In recent years, has the international community taken better measures to appease these "environmental refugees"? If so, what are the specific measures? If not, why have these "environmental refugees" not been taken seriously?


At the outset it’s important to note that the term ‘environmental refugee’ is difficult and contested for many reasons; they don’t fit the category of political refugees (who may have fled external religious or ideological persecution) and they rarely cross borders - displaced for environmental reasons tend to stay within their own countries. For these reasons the response is very varied. On the one hand there have been many efforts to raise awareness of the plight of people forced from their homes for environmental reasons. Some countries have started to actively relocate people away from areas threatened by environmental change. And in 2018 nearly 150 countries across the world signed the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This is the first such agreement that aims to provide some kind of framework for migration, and it includes some important points on how better environmental management can reduce the flows of forced migrants and improve their relationships with host communities. But on the other the Global Compact is a voluntary mechanism and, as far as I can see, it has yet to have a great deal of influence on national approaches to migration.


3.Is there a direct connection between where the environmental refugees occur and whether a country is a developing or developed country? What are the main causes of environmental refugees ?


The first point to emphasise is that people displaced for environmental reasons tend to stay within their own countries – and the sorts of challenges that lead to large scale displacement can happen anywhere. In the United States in 2020, for example, tens of thousands of people were forced to flee forest fires across large parts of California and several other states. The same was true in 2019-2020 with the forest fire seasons in Australia. But while any country can be hit by environmental challenges sufficiently severe to force people from their homes, statistically speaking, it’s something that happens more often in poorer developing countries. This is down to a number of factors including more people often living in exposed, vulnerable situations and fewer resources on the part of government to respond.

4.Do the environmental refugees have a positive impact on the receiving countries? In what specific areas?


The short answer is that ‘it depends on the circumstances’. In-coming migrants can have a hugely positive impact – sharing ideas, culture and perspectives, drawing people together, spurring trade and innovation. But large numbers of migrants can also be politically difficult for countries to manage, increasing competition with local communities and leading to the impression (whether correct or not) that they threaten the jobs qnd culture of people in the host community. Understanding, managing and planning for migration can help ensure that it has the best possible outcomes, for everyone.


Interviewer: Shang Yingyi

Interview Date:May 14, 2021

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