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Climate Change Creating Environmental Migrants

The International Organization for Migration says the number of so-called environmental migrants is increasing because livelihoods are threatened by climate change.

As the world marks International Migrants Day, the IOM is calling for greater action to help people adapt to the changing weather so they do not feel compelled to leave their homes.

The International Organization for Migration says more people are on the move now than ever before.  The World Bank estimates the number of migrants at nearly one billion.

IOM says climate change and environmental degradation are triggering migration or displacement.  It says this is particularly happening in the world's poorest countries.

IOM head of Research and Publications, Frank Laczko, says existing evidence suggests most people who leave their homes do not go abroad.   He says it is incorrect to refer to them as environmental refugees.  

"Refugees according to the 1951 Convention are people who cross international borders.  Today, already there are 740 million internal migrants around the world," he said.  "Now, we expect that figure to rise as a result of climate change.  But, we may not wish to characterize those movements as refugee movements," he said.  

A recent IOM study shows in several Asian countries, over-stretched urban areas are struggling to cope with large numbers of people from rural areas.  It says these people have been forced to move because floods have destroyed their farms and livelihoods.

IOM's Frank Laczko says extreme events such as hurricanes and tornadoes capture the headlines.  But he says the slow onset of environmental degradation like desertification and changes in rainfall will have greater effects on the movement of people in the future.

He notes more than 1.5 million people were affected by droughts between 1979 and 2008, more than double the number affected by storms, with Africa especially vulnerable.

He says countries have to come up with new policies to help people adapt to climate change.  

"Do not start by simply saying migration is the problem.  Migration can also be potentially part of the solution, especially when we are thinking about slow onset changes where people have time to prepare, they have time to think about what strategies work best for themselves and their families," he explained.  "So, by moving from one place to another, they can actually relieve pressure on some places of origin.  At the same time, we are aware that if you do not plan for these changes, you can increase pressure on urban areas, on areas, which are already have problems related to slums, etc. and overcrowding," he added.  

IOM says the potential scale of future movements will require international support for those countries most affected by environmental migration.  It argues this phenomenon will be of growing importance to the developed world.  Therefore, it too, should create policies addressing the issue.

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