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Haitians Now Join Environmental Refugees

New America Media, News Analysis, Andrew Lam Posted: Jan 20, 2010

President Obama recently granted temporary protected status (TPS) to undocumented Haitians living in the United States, and this is surely a step in the right direction for human rights. After all, repatriating them back to a living hell would be immoral at best, and at worst, a crime against humanity.

But by providing temporary asylum to those whose homeland is devastated by the recent earthquake, Obama also has opened the door a little wider to the issue that many consider the most pressing of our time: the plight of environmental refugees.

Indeed, our global age is now defined by unprecedented mass movement but, increasingly, among those displaced is a population whose status has of late gained some level of legitimacy: people who suffer from a wide spectrum of environmental disasters manmade or natural and whose homes have become veritable wastelands. 

While the United Nation High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is reluctant to adopt the official terminology, the debate over the status of environmental refugees and what rights and protections they deserve has become more heated given the Haitian crisis. Official or not, the plight of the environmental refugee -- not necessarily persecuted, yet nevertheless forced to flee -- is gaining center stage. Recently, the term environmentally induced has been used by the United Nations to describe people forced to move due to environmental disruptions, the least of which are due to climate change.

There are, according to the UNHCR, approximately 20 million political, religious or ethnic refugees in the world today. The International Red Cross put the number of environmental refugees as high as 25 million in 1999. This year, the U.N. University's Institute for Environment and Human Security estimates that number has doubled to nearly 50 million. The earthquake in Haiti has potentially added another 1.5-2 million to the list of the displaced, and many will no doubt seek asylum in other countries.

Alas, temporary protection status aside, entitlement to protection stems from what qualifies a person as a refugee in the worlds eye. Those who are forced to flee due to environmental disasters do not enjoy the same level of protection as those who flee persecution. The 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defined a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

This definition made sense during the cold war but seems woefully inadequate in the 21st Century. Many non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations itself, now estimate that the number of environmental refugees will reach over 150 million by 2050, due to factors such as agricultural disruption, deforestation, coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, industrial accidents and pollution. Being displaced and forced out by environmental disasters may very well become the central issue of our time.

"One of the marks of a global civilization is the extent to which we begin to conceive of whole system problems and whole system responses to those problems," notes political scientist Walt Anderson in his book, "All Connected Now." "Events occurring in one part of the world are viewed as matters of concern for the whole world in general and lead to attempt at collective solutions."

All eyes are now on Haiti, and rightly so. Its a prime example of how an act of god can render a country a failed state and worse, a failed ecosystem, in a matter of seconds. Haiti and its future will provide the answer to the question of whether or not humanity can mobilize to save and govern itself on the global scale. And at the core of that is whether or not the world can provide protection and asylum to those whose lives are on the brink due to failing habitats.

Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the upcoming memoir: "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."

Related Articles:

Homes Designed for Extended Families Collapsed in Haitian Quake

Rush to Aid Haiti's Earthquake Victims

After the Quake, Depend on Women

Fate of Undocumented Chinese in Haiti Remains Unknown

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