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Haitians Now Join Environmental Refugees

Andrew Lam

A girl bathes in a makeshift refugee camp, where at least 50,000 people are staying, on the golf course in Port-au-Prince January 18, 2010. (REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

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

Alas, temporary protection status aside, entitlement to protection
stems from what qualifies a person as a refugee in the world's 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. It's 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."

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