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a rest far from home
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intro:the plight of refugees is often referred to as an indication of man's inability to live with man. Yet we are now faced with a refugee problem resulting from man's inability to live with nature.

One of the most recent estimates of the problem suggested that 25 million people worldwide were uprooted for environmental reasons – compared to 22 million displaced by civil wars and persecution. Another estimate suggests that by the year 2050, there could be 150 million displaced by a cocktail of ecological ‘push factors’. Klaus Topfer, chief executive of the United Nations Environment Programme, says that the swollen ranks of environmental refugees could double to 50 million in just eight years time. That is an increase of 8,500 a day.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s forecast of a one-metre sea-level rise this century poses one of the largest dilemmas yet to face the human race. The prospect is particularly bleak given the fact that half the planet’s people are already crowded into coastal zones. In Bangladesh alone a one-metre rise would uproot 20 million people. Even the rich world must pay a price. There are devastating implications for nations such as Holland and Denmark.

Globally, one in three people face acute water shortages as water use is expected to increase by 40% over the next 20 years. Many of these people will be forced from their homes to seek clean water supplies elsewhere. Countries like Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan will be particularly affected. Reports of displacees from desertification cite 24 million as the worldwide total for this category, the African Sahel alone producing 2 million. Other studies predict that 100 million of 135 million people living in areas of desertification will be displaced in the next 20 years.

what: the first people to be popularly called ‘environmental refugees’ as such were the people fleeing the disastrous African drought in the Sahel region in the seventies. That catastrophe turned the best cropland in five countries of Africa into cracked and barren earth. But the term ‘environmental refugee’ was popularised later, in 1985, by Essam El-Hinnawi of the National Research Centre, Cairo. His 40-page booklet "Environmental Refugees" was a landmark paper in that direction. It put environmental refugees into the following three categories:

  • people temporarily displaced due to environmental stress. For example: natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, massive storms), or environmental mishaps like Chernobyl;

  • people permanently displaced and resettled in another area. For example: permanent changes (dams), natural disasters that permanently damage an area (volcanoes);

  • people who can no longer be supported by their lands because of environmental degradation. For example: massive changes in the environment that render it practically obsolete for human survival, often due to human actions (deforestation and desertification).
These groups have often been moved, without reparation or voice in the system. The more affluent and powerful have the resources necessary to relocate if the land degrades beyond repair, leaving the subsistence groups homeless and hungry.

who:in 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), through "State of the World’s Refugees", identified four causes of refugee flows: political instability, economic tensions, ethnic conflict and finally including ‘environmental degradation’.

UNHCR is today one of the world's principal humanitarian agencies dealing with refugee protection. It was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The new agency was given a limited three-year mandate to help resettle 1.2 million European refugees left homeless by the global conflict. But as refugee crises mushroomed around the globe, its mandate was extended. Today, UNHCR has a staff of more than 6,200 personnel helping 17.1 million people in 115 countries and an annual budget of around US$1 billion. During its half century of work, the agency has provided assistance to more than 50 million people, earning two Nobel Peace Prizes in 1954 and 1981.

displaced people: 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 term refugee has a very specific definition covering only people who have fled their homeland and sought sanctuary in a second country. However, there are millions of people in similarly desperate circumstances but who do not legally qualify as refugees and are therefore not eligible for normal relief or protection. Therefore, UNHCR has extended its assistance to some of these groups of persons such as the internally displaced persons. Like refugees, these persons may have been forced to flee their homes because their lives and/or liberty were at risk; but unlike refugees, they were either unable to or did not wish to cross an international border. UNHCR helps 5.8 million of these internally displaced.

partners: UNHCR works with a wide number and type of organisations to provide this assistance. Along with United Nations sister agencies - such as the World Food Programme (WFP), which supplies food and basic commodities to refugees, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) - other organisations include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and more than 570 non-governmental organisations.

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