Over the past few decades, with the rise of global warming, has come an increase in the number of environmentally displaced persons (EDPs). These are people who are under threat from crises such as rising sea levels, salination of irrigated land and desertification.
The potential scale of displacement, or the number of individuals who will have to leave their homelands because of environmental issues, is expected to reach between 150 and 300 million people by 2050.
Most EDPs who have had to flee their homes have nowhere to go. Although most countries will give asylum to refugees who are escaping humanitarian crises (such as individuals escaping religious and ethnic persecution), EDPs do not have legal rights and are not entitled to protection in most cases under the local law of most countries.
One such example of this is the case of Sigeo Alesana. In 2009, he and his family had to move to New Zealand after the Pacific island nation they lived on, Tuvalu, was threatened by rising sea levels. They effectively lost their legal status and were unable to obtain the necessary visas to work. Their case was only approved after it received international media attention.
It is imperative that countries do not ignore their responsibilities towards EDPs. A multilateral agreement between countries should be established, perhaps through the United Nations, as the rights of EDPs are not well covered through international law.
One might argue that some countries do not have sufficient room for environmental migrants (Hong Kong, for example, simply does not have sufficient space), but a cap-and-trade system could solve this.
Each country can be assigned a quota, taking into consideration their economic capability, their land area per capita, and other factors. Sovereign states that do not want to accept environmental refugees can reduce their quota by giving financial assistance to other countries that are willing and able to take in more EDPs.
We share collective responsibility for EDPs – after all, we, enjoying our electricity and fossil-fuelled powered lives, are contributing to the increase in number of environmental refugees. It is time for us to stop putting this under the rug and take action.