Environmental Refugees May Be Everyone's Problem: Security Issues

December 19, 2007

As countries prepare for potential environmental disasters, one hot-button issue is the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. The former are often considered to be the primary source of some of the major problems, while the latter may have to bear the brunt of the results. Many developing countries are insisting that developed countries pay to help them.

For postdisaster situations, the United Nations has attempted to provide guidance to governments and organizations. One document is called the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement."

In the US, an adopted strategy that approximates the UN approach is the "USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy."

However, in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, US officials opted to operate under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. Critics of the recovery effort, such as Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), note that the UN Principles encourage a federal lead role and legal protections for humanitarian assistance; preclude permanent displacement, or substantial alterations in the racial, ethnic, or religious makeup of the affected areas; and encourage assured rights for some degree of assistance with temporary and permanent housing, education, and medical care. In contrast, the Stafford Act generally puts states in the lead role; doesn't assure legal protections for humanitarian assistance; allows for unintended outcomes such as permanent displacement, or substantial alteration in the racial, ethnic, or religious makeup of the affected areas; and permits discretionary provision of assistance for many housing, education, and medical care needs. AEHR: Michele Roberts, 202-775-0055; US Disaster Response Law vs. Human Rights Standards on Internal Displacement.

On July 29, 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that the US shift to the UN Principles, and asked for a follow-up report within one year.

There are no major organizations keeping a detailed inventory of all environmental refugees, either in the US or worldwide. But some groups are sensing the need. Two groups talking about working together on such an effort include the International Organization for Migration and the World Resources Institute.


In addition to humanitarian and socioeconomic concerns, many people have begun to acknowledge the serious security dilemmas spurred by massive environment-related population disruptions. Among the many sources on this topic are corporate and government officials, military veterans, and advocacy organizations:

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