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Migration and the Environment

Posted by Michelle Ellis — 3 June 2012 at 1:52pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: © Kemal Jufri / Greenpeace
Forest land clearing by one of APP's pulp wood supplier

Various places in the UK (and Norfolk is one of them) will celebrate Refugee Week from June 18th - 24th 2012. Refugee Week is a nationwide event that aims to draw attention to the situation of refugees and migrants and to defend their rights. It includes talks, lunches, puppet theatre shows and exhibitions.

What does that have to do with Greenpeace? Quite a bit, actually. There are many ways in which environmental issues affect human rights and force people to flee or migrate. Exploitative industrial practices and climate change do not only threaten the environment; they also affect the lives of many people, especially in the Southern hemisphere, either directly or indirectly. They threaten people’s nutrition, health, economic sustainability and areas of living, making migration and flight more likely. There are good reasons to consider the way in which environmental issues contribute to poverty, exploitation and racism.


Adverse natural conditions increase poverty and hunger.

Droughts affect countries in South Eastern and Central Asia, but also some countries in Central and Latin America, leading to water shortages, crop failures and bad health and hygiene. Even nowadays, more than one billion people have no access to safe drinking water. (1) There is a severe lack of resources such as arable land and drinking water, especially in countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted by this situation. This means more emigration, but also more fights for resources and therefore more political and social conflicts.

Ruthless commercial practices damage the environment as well as people’s livelihood.

One example of such practices is ‘land and water grabbing’, the large-scale buying or leasing of land and water (usually in the Global South, primarily sub-Saharan Africa and South America). This is done especially by companies from Asia and the Middle East for the production of food and biofuel. Land and water grabbing often occurs without adequate consultation of the people who are concerned, harms the local industry and leads to the displacement of residents. It can therefore be a form of neo-colonial exploitation – even though it is not practiced only by the former colonial powers, it affects especially the former colonies.

Overfishing (catching more fish than is ecologically sustainable for industrial purposes, usually on state-of-the-art vessels), on which Greenpeace has recently done a campaign, is not only a threat to the fish. It also affects local economies - it leaves residents unable to earn their living, sometimes forcing them to turn to piracy. The most infamous case of this is the African country of Somalia, but it may also be a danger to other countries such as Senegal. (2)

Dam-building for irrigation and power generation can have devastating impacts to local communities: they may be evicted, lose access to drinking water and food or be affected by water-borne illnesses. According to the organisation International Rivers, large dams have forced 40-80 million people from their land in the past 60 years. (3)

Some companies do not accept responsibility for environmental damages they have caused.

One example is the company Shell, which has a notoriously bad reputation in environmental issues, as it plans to drill for oil in the arctic and does not deal with oil spills adequately. The Niger Delta has been polluted by hundreds of oil spills, most devastatingly in September and December 2008, when a pipeline belonging to Shell leaked. Thousands of tons of oil have contaminated the ground, putting the health of thousands of people at risk, endangering their food supplies and making them unable to live from fishing. Shell refused for years to accept liability and pay compensation for those oil spills, and it still does not address the problem of pollution or clean up oil spills properly. (4) This is a severe human rights abuse.


In addition to those current problems, climate change threatens to make the situation even worse. While the Global South contributes far less to climate change than the North, it suffers more from its impacts in several ways. According to Greenpeace, “over 180 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone could die as a result of climate change by the end of the century.” (5)

Climate change increases the danger of natural catastrophes. It is likely to make areas of high rainfall even rainier (increasing the danger of floods) and areas with low rainfall even drier (increasing the danger of droughts). It is also likely to cause more extreme weather such as hurricanes and heat waves. Especially poor areas are often incapable of reacting adequately to such disasters.

Environmental degradation (slow onset disaster) threatens people’s living areas. It causes desertification and salination (increasing amount of salt, which makes the ground unsuitable for crops), especially in Africa. This makes farming more difficult and therefore increases poverty and hunger.

Rising sea levels lead to more flooding, endangering islands in the South Pacific (also known as ‘Sinking Islands’), densely populated deltas and coasts in Africa and Asia, but also coastal regions in Alaska. This is a very serious threat to the sinking countries. For example, leaders of the Pacific archipelago of Kiribati consider evacuating the whole country and moving its 103,000 inhabitants to Fiji (6).


Environmental damages are a consequence of capitalist exploitation that puts profits before people and nature. They exacerbate health and nutrition problems; they affect local economies; and they can make political and social conflict worse. They therefore contribute to the reasons that face people to emigrate, often facing enormous dangers and brutal immigration controls, racism, poverty and further obstacles. Persons who migrate for such reasons are often called ‘economic migrants’, implying that their reasons to flee are not serious and they are not in severe danger. However, poverty, hunger, exploitation and the destruction of local industries are very threatening, and splitting people into ‘good migrants’ (who are in real danger) and ‘bad migrants’ (who flee ‘only’ for economic reasons) is a discriminating and irresponsible tactic.

Following ethical principles in everyday life (e.g.  joining environmental groups; buying ethically produced goods; saving water and energy; flying and driving less; lobbying politicians to implement environmentally friendly strategies) is not only a way of protecting the environment, but also helps to fight some of the factors that force people to flee and migrate. Anyone who wants to do more can join an anti-racist group, support migrants’ protests, challenge racist statements in everyday life, protest against fascist demonstrations…

Let’s protect the planet. For everyone who lives on it.




(1) Unicef:

(2) The Guardian:

(3) International Rivers:

(4) Amnesty International:

(5) Greenpeace:

(6) Breaking News:

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