The Protection of Environmentally-Displaced Persons in International Law

By Lopez, Aurelie | Environmental Law, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Protection of Environmentally-Displaced Persons in International Law

Lopez, Aurelie, Environmental Law


     A. Long-Term Environmental Degradation and Sudden Natural
        Environmental Disruptions
     B. Accidents, Including Industrial and Chemical Disasters
     C. The Aftermath of Armed Conflicts
     D. Environmentally-Induced Migration Controversy
     A. The Blunt, Well-Founded Fear of Persecution of
        Environmentally-Displaced Persons
     B. The Blurred Grounds of the Persecution Suffered by
        Environmentally-Displaced Persons
     C. The Problematic Dichotomy Among Environmentally-Displaced
     D. Conclusions Concerning the Environmental Refugee
     A. The Conundrums of Revising the Traditional Refugee Definition
        to Encompass Environmentally-Displaced Persons
     B. Proposed Definition of "Environmental Refugee" at the
        International Level
     C. The Limits of Applying the Complementary Forms of International
        Protection to Environmentally-Displaced Persons
        1. Complementary Protection in Europe.. The Forgotten Category
           of Environmentally-Displaced Persons
           a. Eligibility Criteria for International Protection Under
              the Directive on Temporary Protection
           b. Eligibility Criteria for International Protection Under
              the Directive on Subsidiary Protection
           c. Conclusion Concerning Complementary Protection in
        2. Complementary Protection in the United States: The Uncertain
           Protection of Environmentally-Displaced Persons
     D. Proposed International Regime of Complementary Protection
        Specifically Dealing with Environmentally-Displaced Persons


The United Nations (UN) defines "disaster" as "a serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material, or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected society to [cope] using only its own resources." (2) Numerous environmental disasters have indiscriminately touched all continents with devastating effects. (3) Various political, economic, or social factors can cause environmental disasters, which are far-reaching and inextricably linked to growth and development. (4) However, history has repeatedly shown that the environment itself can also be a source of disaster.

Over the past forty years, scientists have approached the issue of environmental degradation from different perspectives and with different rules and procedures. (5) The body of international environmental law sets forth a variety of norms aimed at preventing, reducing, and remedying the multiple aspects of environmental degradation, ad environmental degradation ultimately lead to environmental disasters. In contrast, humanitarian law and human rights law consider environmental degradation from an anthropocentric point of view, addressing the adverse effects of environmental degradation on human beings. While migration to escape an environment temporarily or permanently disrupted is a critical aspect of the issue, the current international legal regime disregards the correlation between environmental degradation and human migration.

The importance of the issue of environmentally-induced migration has been highlighted by scientists, which provoked much debate among legal academics. The seminal event in the development of a comprehensive study on the problems related to environmentally-induced migration was a 1985 United Nations Environment Programme paper on environmental refugees: (6) The expression "environmental refugees," though widely used for the past twenty years, is mistakenly applied. "In everyday speech, the word 'refugee' is used to describe a person who is forced to flee his or her home for any reason for which the individual is not responsible, be it persecution, public disorder, civil war, famine, earthquake or environmental degradation.

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