Fugee Feedback Loops - Environmental Degradation as a Cause and Effect of Displaced Persons

Ben Staplin


            Colonialism, Imperialism, globalization and the proliferation of western capitalism are all historical forces that have shuffled people and capital around the planet.  But these are all purposeful or premeditated forces, so the movements and concurrent developments they have caused, while not necessarily environmentally conscious, have been conducted in a relatively orderly manner in an attempt to ensure the profitability, or, at the very least, the personal sustainability of those involved. Even when environmental sustainability is largely ignored, the implicit connection between economic sustainability and environmental sustainability (which this paper will briefly address later) causes governments, multinational corporations, etc. to try to avoid pissing in the well. There is a limit to the environmental degradation these profit or power oriented forces are willing to cause, because, at a certain point, the undeniable dependency human beings have on the environment, even those engaging in the most artificial modes of production, makes wanton disregard for natural resources unprofitable or otherwise self-defeating. I’m not trying to imply these forces are not environmentally destructive  -- in fact they cause many times more damage than the forthcoming topic of inquiry  -- I only mean to stress the fact that sustainability is essential. A multinational has the resource pool to act with a degree of impunity and remain sustainable.

            This paper will be examining the relationship between non-voluntary migrations and the environment as seen in the many current contemporaneous as well as near-historical refugee crises that have plagued developing and conflict-torn nations the world over. These stand in stark contrast to the self-motivated migrations mentioned above, since they are not carried out in the pursuit of anything but survival. Environmental concerns are treated both by refugees themselves, and, until recently by the global community, as insignificant as compared to the immediate threats that make day-to-day living extremely tenuous. Sadly, recent studies are showing the environmental degradation caused by refugees is not only harmful in the long run, but that it greatly exacerbates the daily struggle for survival in a dramatic and immediate fashion. Desperate and disadvantaged refugees are destroying the natural resources around their temporary homes in an attempt to survive, and in doing so are both harming their community (and themselves) and are perpetuating as well as aggravating the refugee crisis they are so desperately trying to extricate themselves from.

            Refugees are caught in a miserable feedback loop with no way out other than outside intervention or death. This helplessness can largely be explained by the lack of infrastructure and traditional resources that, prior to displacement, facilitated a sustainable existence. The combined hardships of the catalyst for migration and the difficulty of the journey make it very difficult for refugees to preserve the things that they were previously dependent upon. In addition, they are often times removed from the one particular ecosystem they know how to sustainably survive in. Unfamiliar natural surroundings, numbers far exceeding the human carrying capacity of the locale, and abject poverty force refugees to be highly improvisational in their attempts to adapt and survive. "Indeed, it can be argued that if a social system is unstable, it is probably incapable of living in harmony with natural systems" (Wall 2). Often times, though I cannot see how refugees can do otherwise, their inability to maintain even the semblance of consciousness for the health of their immediate ecosystems causes the concurrent destruction of natural resources and human life.

            Deforestation, water contamination, loss of biodiversity, and the spread of disease are some of the most deleterious effects of refugee settlements. The Rwandan refugee crisis of the mid-nineties caused all of the aforementioned environmental consequences as well as quite a few others, possibly as a result of its location in central Africa around nations that could do little for the burgeoning refugee population, as well as the sheer number of refugees mobilized in a matter of days. Along the border to Zaire (now the DRC) 1.2 million refugees found themselves in need of food, clothing, shelter, and fuel, and quickly set out to satiate some of those needs. Nine-hundred acres of trees were cleared in three days from the Virunga National Forest, which in turn aversely effected the animal population which was already being decimated by the attempt to fill 1.2 million empty stomachs. According to the UN, "it is estimated as many as 20 to 30,000 people a day were taking wood from the forest. All told, over one third of the forest was impacted by wood cutting, with 35 million trees ultimately cut down" (Wall 3). The Goma Lake was similarly hurt by the influx of refugees who had no other source of water, and of necessity used it for their drinking, cooking, and cleaning needs, as well as as a depository for untreated waste.

            Clearly the environment suffers as a result of the improvised and externally motivated migration of the extremely poor, but the same undeniable interdependency between human beings and the environment that put a limit on even the most unscrupulous corporate and governmental exploitation of the environment is responsible for a feedback loop in which the environment avenges itself on the hordes of resource hungry invaders. In the most general sense, migrations of this nature cause environmental damage, which in turn displaces more people, who are then forced into positions where sustainability becomes subordinate to daily survival. In fact, some predict, "by 2010 the world will need to cope with as many as 50 million people escaping the effects of creeping environmental deterioration" (UNU 1). It is important to note that these individuals are not recognized by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as “persons of concern,” and as a result do not receive the aid that conflict refugees marginally benefit from. This means that these refugees are even more dependent on the natural resources of their surroundings than those who are officially recognized, and since the projected size of this group is two and half times larger than that of the officially recognized “persons of concern,” the significance of this distinction is difficult to miss.

            The vicious cycle of refugees and the environment harming one another not only contributes to the creation of new refugees, but also to the deterioration of living conditions for those who have already been displaced. In the case of the Rwandans, this can be seen primarily in the negative effects caused by the confluence of deforestation and water contamination. The thousands of acres of land that were deforested quickly eroded, allowing more natural contaminants to make their way, ultimately, into Goma Lake. This occurred in conjunction with the dumping of untreated waste (mentioned above) into the lake. On their own, either of these conditions would have had averse effects on the health of all nearby populations of living things, but together the result was absolutely devastating. 200,000 refugees were affected by the cholera epidemic caused by the conditions above, and nearly fifteen percent (30,000 people) succumbed to the disease (Siddique 3-4). Medical care provided by the United Nations and other NGO's was able to curb the rate of infection, reducing it by nearly half by the time the Rwandans received word it was safe to start returning home, but even this well-intentioned action had an unintended consequence. Medical waste was improperly handled, even "dumped in forests, where they were spread by animals, endangering the health of both humans and wildlife" (Wall 2).

            One of the defining characteristics of refugees, as I tried to highlight in the introduction, is the lack of volition behind their migrations. Besides for the importation of all that is needed to meet the refugees needs, the only other intuitive way to prevent this destructive cycle is to assimilate refugees into existing sustainable communities. Refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, who fled to the neighboring nation of Guinea to escape militia violence, were in fact integrated into urban communities rather than set up in make-ship camps away from the native population. While Guinea has been praised for its intentions, as a result of its hospitality the environmental and human health conditions in and around its urban areas have greatly suffered. In Guinea there is little wastewater management to begin with, and the influx of waste created by refugees has put an unbearable strain on the already insufficient infrastructure. Lack of resources forces people to use and pollute water, deforest the surrounding region, and otherwise misuse exhaustible, contaminable resources in a manner similar to what is done in the camps (Wall 4).

            Unlike voluntary migrations and movements of capital, the effects refugees have on their environment are especially frustrating to study because little can be done about them. The very existence of refugees points to a breakdown of the normal social order, and it is by preventing this collapse that the environmental degradation explicated above can best be prevented. Even so, it is important to recognize the interdependency between people and the environment, which I would argue is most intense when people are living as essentially hunter-gatherers, that is responsible for the feedback loop so damaging to refugee camp ecosystems. While survival will always trump all else in motivating the immediate actions of an individual, increased recognition that wanton disregard for the environment in one's struggle for self-preservation will very quickly make his or her survival much more difficult could make the human and environmental costs of involuntary migration at least marginally less devastating.


Siddique, Ak. "Cholera Epidemic Among Rwandan Refugees: Experience of ICDDR,B in Goma, Zaire." GLIMPSE 5 (1994): 3-4. 26 Mar. 2008 <http://www.popline.org/docs/1063/100913.html>.

United Nations. United Nations University. Environmental Refugees to Top 50 Million in 5 Years. 11 Oct. 2005. 25 Mar. 2008 <http://news.mongabay.com/2005/1011-unu.html>.

Wall, Roland. The Academy of Natural Sciences. Philadelphia Natural History Museum. Aug. 2003. 25 Mar. 2008 <http://www.ansp.org/museum/kye/human_influences/2003_refugees.php>.

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last updated 3/31/08