11 Apr 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Protecting the environment in humanitarian responses to population displacement

European Union /Samuel Ochai

On the face of it, Guatemala, Lebanon and Nigeria are some of the most dissimilar places on the planet.

Not only are they located on different continents, thousands of miles away from each other, but they also have distinct histories and cultures. But to the discerning mind, the three countries have much in common despite the physical barriers that separate them.

In Guatemala, a country plagued by violence and exhibiting acute levels of disaster risk, over a third of all municipalities have reported high levels of displacement and attendant negative consequences for people and the environment.

Halfway across the world in the Middle East, the conflict in Syria, and the displacement it has provoked within the country and across its borders, has put tremendous strain on the economies, governments and local populations in areas of influx in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Similarly, conflict and degraded natural environments in Nigeria have contributed to large population movements within the country, thus burdening host communities and necessitating a large-scale humanitarian response.

Central America Immigrants
Drought and irregular rainfall have partly contributed to a wave of Central American migrants heading towards Mexico (REUTERS/Luis Echeverria)

In Lebanon, the government estimates that the country hosts 1.5 million Syrians, including over 1 million registered as refugees with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Besides the more recent influx of Syrians, over a quarter million registered Palestine refugees live in Lebanon, contributing to making it the world’s largest refugee-hosting country per capita. Accounting for over 30 per cent of the country’s population, refugees and displaced Syrians share critically overburdened services and infrastructure with local host communities.

In West Africa, Nigeria has one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the world. Most of these displacements are a result of significant conflict in the country’s northeast, especially due to the Boko Haram insurgency. According to UNHCR, up to three quarters of the displacements stem from violence resulting from the insurgency while another quarter is due to increases in communal conflicts.

Gwoza Camp
Cross section of shelter tents at Gwoza 20 Housing Unit, at the Gadamayo Internally Displaced Person camp in Gwoza, Borno State in Northern Nigeria. ( European Union /Samuel Ochai)

“Unless addressed coherently and comprehensively, it can be expected that displacement attributable to conflicts and disasters resulting from natural resource mismanagement, unmitigated environmental degradation, and insufficient preparedness for the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of advancing climate change, will only breed more displacement,” says Saidou Hamani, UN Environment Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Coordinator in UN Environment’s Regional Office for Africa

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study found that 68.5 million people had been driven from their homes across the world at the end of 2017, more people than the population of Thailand.

That is more than a three-fold increase as compared to just over a decade ago. It includes over 22.5 million refugees, more than 40 million internally displaced people and nearly three million asylum seekers.

As the magnitude of conflict-induced displacement has grown at an unprecedented rate over the past years, annual displacement attributable to disasters accounts for a far greater proportion of the global caseload of people forced to leave their homes.

According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2018, there were 30.6 million new displacements associated with conflict and disasters across 143 countries and territories.

Although the environment has always been a factor in population movements, with pastoralists and hunter gatherers being obvious examples, disasters, conflicts and sudden environmental or socioeconomic shocks often provoke population movements with a speed and scale that overwhelm the capacity of ecosystems, host populations, economies, and governments to adapt.

In January 2018, UN Environment, in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), launched a project aimed at strengthening national capacity to address the environmental impacts of humanitarian responses to population displacement in Guatemala, Lebanon and Nigeria. The project’s activities have also been extended to Brazil, Turkey and Vanuatu.

Since its inception in 1994, the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit (JEU) has mobilized experts and equipment to improve the response to environmental impacts of sudden-onset disasters and complex emergencies.

“This project aims to support countries experiencing large-scale population movements in implementing improved environmental management measures that address the environmental consequences of mass displacement and irregular migration, and of the humanitarian response to those population movements,” says Hamani.

The project, which is ongoing until December 2020 is a response to the call for action on addressing large movements of displaced people and migrants made by the UN General Assembly Declaration of the 2013 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, which recognized "the need to consider the role that environmental factors may play in migration”.  

In 2016, at the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly, Member States, through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, committed to providing assistance to host countries to protect and rehabilitate the environment in areas affected by large movements of displaced people, as well as to ensure close cooperation and encourage joint planning between humanitarian and other relevant actors, such as development workers.

The environment is often strained by a sudden influx of displaced people and more so in cases where it was already degraded (Daniel Stothart/UN Environment)

UN Environment, as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, is working to promote a coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system and has served as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. It has also been part of the Global Migration Group, the main UN platform for inter-agency cooperation on migration and displacement.

For more information, please contact Saidou.Hamani[at]un.org.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.