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Environmental refugees could hit 50m by 2010

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The world could be facing a surge in the numbers of people made homeless by environmental degradation, with UN researchers estimating that by 2010, there will be 50m so-called environmental refugees in need of aid and support.

"There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena," said Janos Bogardi, director of the UN University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

But currently, global conventions define a refugee as someone who has a "...well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion..."

"This new category of ‘refugee’ needs to find a place in international agreements. We need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations," Bogardi argues.

The question of how to define an environmental refugee is a complex one, and the UN researchers acknowledge the dangers of taking a too simplistic approach. For instance, growing deserts are the single biggest factor is driving these kinds of migration. And although climate change is an exacerbating factor, unsustainable farming methods and population growth are also directly responsible.

Another major change will be that these new refugees will most likely migrate within their own countries, the researchers say.

Places in particular danger include Sana'a, Yemen’s capital city, villages on the edges of the Gobi desert, as well as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Sana'a's population has doubled every six years since 1972, but the aquifer on which it depends for water could run dry by 2010, according to the World Bank.

Half of Egypt's farm land faces contamination with salt water, while Morocco, Libya and Tunisia each lose over a thousand square kilometres of farmland to the desert every year.

UNU-EHS has established a new research chair on social vulnerability. One of its main areas of focus will be migrations forced by "slow moving catastrophes", such as desertification, vanishing safe water and climate change-induced sea level rise. ®

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