Social work and environmentally induced displacement: a commentary.

Author:Drolet, Julie


Environmentally induced displacement is a growing concern across the globe. The human and social dimensions of affected displaced and migrating populations are of concern to the profession of social work, as many social workers are directly involved in working with vulnerable populations affected by environmental changes due to climate change, disasters, and environmental degradation. This new reality presents challenges in addressing social and economic inequalities and disparities, and this commentary argues for a need to build capacity among practitioners to consider the interconnections of social, economic, and environmental challenges in bridging practice and policy in ongoing legal discourses.


Les deplacements provoques par I'environnement sont une preoccupation internationale croissante. Les effets de nature humaine et sociale sur les deplaces et les populations migrantes preoccupent les professionnels du travail social, etant donne que de nombreux travailleurs sociaux se trouvent impliques aupres de populations vulnerables affecteespar des changements environnementaux dus aux changements climatiques, a la degradation et aux desastres environnementaux. Cette nouvelle realite pose des defis puisqu'elle releve les inegalites et disparites sociales et economiques. Cet article met donc en lumiere le besoin de construire chez les travailleurs sociaux la capacite de considerer les interactions entre les defis sociaux, economiques, et environnementaux lorsqu'ils mettent en lien des pratiques et des politiques en matiere legale.


Social workers around the world play a potentially important role in promoting sustainable social development by bringing together social, economic, and environment considerations in local communities. The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development is designed by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) to strengthen the profile of social work in order to enable social workers to make a stronger contribution to policy development. (1) The Global Agenda focuses on four priority areas: (1) promoting social and economic equalities, (2) promoting the dignity and worth of peoples, (3) working toward environmental sustainability, and (4) strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships. Human activities in most parts of the world are transforming the global environment. (2) A number of factors contribute to global environmental change such as air pollution and ozone depletion, climate change, land use change, deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, fresh water availability, hazardous wastes, and war. (3) Increasingly, social workers are being called upon to promote community capacity-building in response to social, economic, and environmental challenges that lead to displacement and migration due to these factors. (4) However, there is a need to build capacity in order to develop sustainable and effective interventions. "Green social work" is a term used to describe a holistic understanding of various environments and their impacts upon people's behaviour. (5) The human and social dimensions are central in addressing vulnerabilities, as people's health and well-being suffer as a result of inequalities, poverty, and unsustainable environments related to the impacts of climate change, pollutants, war, natural disasters, and violence, to which there are inadequate international responses. (6) This article provides a commentary on the need to build social work's capacity in the international arena in order to contribute to the political and legal discourses on environmentally induced displacement. To meet this emerging need, the field of social work will need to strengthen its capacity in community development, advocacy, and anti-oppressive social protection initiatives, rather than clinical individualized social work interventions, in order to create interventions that bridge the needs of affected populations and policy development.

Definitions of Environment-Induced Displacement

Lonergan (7) explains that environmentally induced population movements are caused by (1) environmental stress such as an earthquake, cyclone, or other natural disaster; (2) development projects that create a permanent change in habitat, thus forcing people to leave their homes; (3) cumulative changes or "slow-onset" changes such as deforestation; (4) industrial accidents such as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl; and (5) conflict and warfare where environmental degradation is both a cause and effect of armed conflict. The term "development-induced displacement" concerns the plight of millions of people in developing countries who have been compelled or persuaded to move from their residences and their environments and have been uprooted from their livelihoods as a result of disruptions caused by infrastructural projects that characterized development planning in the 1960s and 1970s. (8) It is estimated that 15 million migrants are displaced by development projects every year in the world. (9) The question of how to protect people who are displaced from their homes and livelihoods by development projects, and the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders, has led many to consider how affected populations may share equitably in the benefits. (10) Assan and Rosenfeld discuss the absence of a recognized definition, the disagreement over the number of environmental migrants, and the diverse legal perspectives. (11) McAdam considers climate change, forced migration, and international law by questioning whether flight from habitat destruction should be viewed as another facet of traditional international protection or as a new challenge requiring more creative and policy responses. (12) "Environmental refugees" under international law are not refugees and not entitled to legal protection when in a host state. (13) There is a need to facilitate policy efforts towards addressing diverse forms of migration at the national and international levels. The concept of environmental migration is controversial, largely because of the difficulty in measuring the extent to which environmental factors compel people to move. (14) "Environmentally induced migrants" is a term used to describe persons on the move in response to immediate life-threatening events or because the environment has deteriorated their livelihoods so much that they can no longer support themselves. (15) Betts develops the concept of "survival migration" to highlight the situation of people whose own countries are unable or unwilling to ensure their most fundamental human rights (yet fall outside the framework of the refugee protection regime) by not focusing on the underlying cause of movement-- whether persecution, conflict, or environment. (16)

Research examining the nexus between environmental change and human mobility has focused primarily on the migration of individuals and households. (17) Climate change is predicted to dislocate millions of people in regions already vulnerable to economic, political, and environmental disruption. (18) Adger considers aspects of fairness, justice, and equity in adaptation responses for vulnerable groups. (19) More recently, there is an emerging literature that considers how some communities are under direct threat of displacement due to climate-related factors. Corlett examines the effects of climate change as experienced by the people of Tuvalu, a tiny, picturesque Pacific nation. (20) Bronen discusses how the spectre of millions of people fleeing their homes because of climate change has sparked an international debate about creating human rights protections for climate change, and specifically presents the crisis in the Arctic where traditional responses of hazard prevention and disaster relief are no longer protecting communities, and have resulted in climate-induced relocation or "community relocation" as the only feasible solution to permanently protect the inhabitants of these communities. (21) The relocation of entire communities, not just individuals and households, may, in some circumstances, be the best adaptation response to climate change. (22) This new evidence demonstrates that flight is caused by environmental changes rather than the longstanding view that environmental migrants leave their homes in response to a number of...

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