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What to do with Tsunami victims and environmental refugees?

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Thursday, 13 January 2005

The call by Democrats leader, Lyn Alison, to take in refugees from tsumani-ravaged Aceh raises the controversial question of what to do with environmental refugees.

The devastation and dislocation surrounding the tsunami are akin to the scenario imagined by some from the effects of global warming, although the tsunami’s impact was instant.

The tens of thousands of people left destitute look like survivors from a brutal armed conflict. In some of the countries affected, such as the Maldives, the population has been rendered virtually stateless. Of course, the cause this time is natural. But the results are similar to war and war is a situation where refugees would be accepted.


The legal net for the acceptance of refugees is hotly contested ground. One definition of a refugee is if a person has a genuine fear of being persecuted for membership of a particular social group or class. A couple from Bangladesh set a global precedent in 2003 by winning an appeal in the Australian High Court. The couple was gay, deemed by the court a persecuted social group.

It was also in Bangladesh last year when NGOs urged the creation of a new category of environmental refugee. This was when the country was in the grip of yet another severe flood, leaving thousands of people homeless. The same country, according the World Bank, could partially disappear if sea levels rise the projected 35cm in the next 50 years.

A similar call was made from leaders of Pacific Islands last year, The Pacific, although shielded from the tsunami, will be particularly vulnerable to any further rises in sea level.

Australia, they argue is a major industrial polluter in the region and a country that has not signed up to the Kyoto protocol. As a result, Pacific conservationists reckon Australia has a responsibility to shoulder the human burden of global warming among its immediate neighbours.

The tiny island of Tuvalu, which lies halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has already conceded defeat. Their leaders have decided to abandon their homeland. New Zealand has agreed to accept the entire population of 11,000 people over the next decade. Australia was reluctant to take any of them.

Furthermore, the current Australian government has been a staunch supporter of fossil fuels. The latest change to its environmental policy has the guise of a more forward outlook. John Howard allocated $700 million for research into alternate energy development. But in the same announcement the Australian PM revealed excises on fossil fuels would be reduced by $1.5 billion, effectively removing any incentive to use renewable-energy sources. This shortsighted policy can only accelerate the process of global warming.


The tsunami disaster is a very rare event, perhaps once in a millennium. But it sets the scene for upcoming decades, when the fallout from environmental disasters may be as great if not greater than military ones.

The global environmental think thank, the World Watch Institute, estimates there are 10 million people who have been left destitute from the effects of deforestation, soil erosion, floods or cyclones. This makes them the largest class of refugees, greater than those fleeing from war. But unfortunately there is no category for environmental refugees. The law does not recognise their destitute status.

Ecologist Norman Myers predicted a decade ago that we were slowly heading towards a "hidden crisis". He was referring to those fleeing natural disasters, both the gradual and sudden kind. He estimates 150 million people will be affected within the next three decades. The crisis is hidden because there is no category for them. They are legal gypsies, without a home in the Geneva Convention. When they do cross borders they are generally classified as economic migrants or illegal aliens.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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