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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Climate victims 'are refugees'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Rwandan refugee   BBC
Climate change propels refugees
People forced to flee by climate change or other disasters caused by human activities deserve recognition as refugees, a UK campaign group argues.

It says people affected by rising temperatures should be given a special status as "environmental refugees".

The foundation says there are tens of millions of these refugees already.

It wants the Geneva Convention changed or replaced to protect everyone who is forced to flee by environmental damage.

In a report, Environmental Refugees: The Case For Recognition, the London-based foundation says there is a growing interdependency in a world where environmental problems have no respect for borders, so this new status is an essential response to a growing and unavoidable crisis.

About $80bn is going in subsidies to fossil fuel industries in rich countries, against $0.4bn pledged to help poor ones to adapt to climate change
Andrew Simms, NEF
It says the number of people around the world uprooted for environmental reasons probably totals 25 million, compared with 22 million displaced by civil wars and persecution.

By 2050, it suggests, there could be 150 million people worldwide "displaced by a cocktail of ecological 'push factors'".

Polluters to pay

Apart from amending or replacing the Geneva Convention, NEF suggests there should be compensation for ecological debts "to clarify the financial and environmental obligations of 'over-polluting' countries... "

One of the report's co-authors, Andrew Simms, said: "Hysteria and hypocrisy walk in the footsteps of refugees and migrants. The paranoia of wealthy countries is deeply ironic.

"Their carbon-intensive lifestyles are driving global warming, which is likely to become the largest single factor forcing people to flee their homes around the world... People in poor, vulnerable countries pay with their homes for our lifestyles."

Afghan refugee   AP
There are many environmental reasons to flee
NEF says the refugee convention lacks an explicit clause acknowledging the plight of people like these. If such a clause were added, it believes, there would then be an enforceable international duty to help them.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says it is already overburdened and underfunded, and could not take on the extra work.

But Andrew Simms told BBC News Online: "Just because UNHCR's hands are full, that doesn't mean the problem will simply go away.

Unequal shares

"Unless you create a proper legal status for the people affected and put the responsibility for helping them on the developed world, it will go on being the poor countries who are left to pick up the tab.

"We have a pretty watertight ability to pin the responsibility for climate change where it belongs.

"We know, for instance, that when it sits down to dinner on 2 January, a US family will already have consumed as much fossil fuel since the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day as a Tanzanian family will survive on for the entire year.

"What I find most outrageous is that - very conservatively - about $80bn is going in subsidies to fossil fuel industries in rich countries, against $0.4bn pledged to help poor ones to adapt to climate change."

NEF says other causes besides climate change are creating environmental refugees: they include dam-building, the spread of deserts, and the loss of forests.

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