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Eco-Refugees Seek Asylum

A new mass of wandering people are escaping their homelands in search of better lives. They are not driven by political persecution, but by deforestation, global warming, natural catastrophes, and nuclear and industrial disasters. These are the environmental refugees.

"There are about 30 million such refugees," said Essam El-Hinnawi of the Natural Resources and Environment Institute in Cairo. "This number will increase with deteriorating environmental and economic conditions in parts of the developing world."

The World Disasters Report published annually by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says there are 5,000 new environmental refugees every day.

Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Klaus Toepfer goes further in estimating that by 2010 the number of environmental refugees will reach 50 million. That means 8,500 more every day.

El-Hinnawi was the first to identify environmental refugees in 1985 when working for UNEP. But they are not recognized as refugees under international law and cannot request protection or asylum.

The Geneva Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1951 does not cover environmental refugees. Under that Convention a refugee is someone who suffers persecution "for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership or particular social group or political opinion."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distinguishes between political and social refugees, said to number about 20 million people, and those it considers merely displaced persons.

"The Convention is not enough," said Federico Longo, who works with asylum seekers in Venice, Italy. "It is too linked to the post-war situation which originated it."

Longo was among activists and experts from 22 countries who attended the second International Meeting on Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Venice, Italy, on the eve of the International Day of Refugees. The meeting was organized by A.R.I. Onlus (Association Rieti Imigrant), a local non-governmental organisation, with the support of the local municipality.

Delegates sought a review of the Geneva Convention. "The definition of right of asylum and humanitarian protection has to be differently conceptualised to embody the historical, political and environmental changes of the last 50 years," Longo said.

"Only local national laws apply to them," said El-Hinnawi. "A new classification of refugees should be adopted by the UN."

Disasters caused by human activity have increased, and forced the displacement of millions of people, El-Hinnawi said. "Emergency aid applies only to specific situations, but it is not a solution."

The number of environmental refugees is expected to grow dramatically as a result of climatic factors leading to soil erosion, global warming, and water pollution.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations scientific body responsible for reviewing the causes and impact of climate change, forecasts 150 million environmental refugees by 2050.

In China around 4,000 villages are threatened by desertification, according to the Asian Development Bank. The Gobi desert is expanding 10,400 square kilometers every year.

In Nigeria around 3,500 square kilometers of land becomes desert every year. In the Iranian provinces of Baluchistan and Sistan inhabitants have abandoned around 124 villages over the last few years due to growing desertification.

Small Pacific island states like Tuvalu are threatened by rising sea levels. The Netherlands and Denmark are also in danger.

"The IPCC foresees that in the next 100 years the sea level will rise at least one meter due to the temperature increase," said Roberto della Seta from the Italian environmental association Legambiente. "In Bangladesh alone this phenomenon will create between 20 and 40 million refugees."

Water shortage is expected to become a massive problem. The water-bearing stratum under Yemeni capital Sana'a will disappear by 2010, according to the World Bank.

Many environmental refugees do not cross borders; they are internally displaced. That was the case with the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1985 and the gas leak in Bhopal in India in 1984.

The poor in the developing world are the most vulnerable to climate change.

"The poorest people do not contribute to the problem of climate change to a substantial degree, nor do they benefit financially from it, but they pay the highest prize and are more vulnerable to its effects," says the group Rising Tide Climate Justice Network.

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