Environmental refugees: a growing phenomenon of the 21st century

Norman Myers

Abstract

There is a new phenomenon in the global arena: environmental refugees. These are people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with the associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries, many being internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi–permanent if not permanent basis, with little hope of a foreseeable return. In 1995, environmental refugees totalled at least 25 million people, compared with 27 million traditional refugees (people fleeing political oppression, religious persecution and ethnic troubles). The total number of environmental refugees could well double by the year 2010, and increase steadily for a good while thereafter as growing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on overloaded environments. When global warming takes hold, there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by sea–level rise and coastal flooding, by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, and by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration.