More often we read about people getting in trouble because their livelihoods has been damaged due to natural or human causes. We see people sitting on the roofs of their houses, or in the tops of trees trying to escape rising water; people under the remains of their houses after an earthquake; people who become disabled for the rest of their life due to a nuclear disaster.

The number of incidents, that cause people to flee from environmental problems, is increasing rapidly. In 1999, Mr. Serageldin, chairman of the World Water Council, already stated that more people flee due to environmental problems than due to war. At that moment he estimated the number of environmental refugees to be 25 million and he estimated the number to be quadrupled for 2005.

Despite the huge number of people involved, there is no single organisation that focuses explicitly on the problems of - nor offers help to - these refugees, who we define as environmental refugees.

Who are we? We are an organisation called LiSER, an organisation that focuses on the identification and recognition of environmental refugees. In this leaflet we will explain who are the environmental refugees and why they deserve our explicit attention.



The UNEP, the environmental program of the United Nations defines environmental refugees: “as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/ or seriously affected the quality of their life.

By ’environmental disruption’ is meant any physical, chemical and/or biological changes in the ecosystem (or the resource base) that render it temporarily or permanently, unsuitable to support human life.” (Environmental Refugees, Essam El-Hinnawi, UNEP, 1985)



There can be a number of reasons for the deterioration of a specific environment. One can think of natural causes like hurricanes, thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc. Other causes of deterioration are purely human-induced, for instance logging of tropical rain forests, construction of (river)dams, nuclear disasters, environmental pollution, and (biological) warfare. But very often a disaster can be a combination of human and natural factors, such as floods or drought due to extreme weather events, extreme climate events or global warming.


The in between…

After some disasters, such as large scale flooding, people can return to their habitat and start rehabilitation and reconstruction; very often with a future flood as a possibility.

Other disasters create permanent displacement as in the case of the construction of an electric power dam in a river valley.

Sometimes -for instance after a period of drought- the displaced people indeed can go back to their original livelihoods, but in fact without any prospects for the future. Environmental refugees are not only deprived of opportunities for the future but usually also from legislative recognition and support.


International law

The international refugee legislation is fifty years old and originally was meant for the huge number of displaced people after World War II. The Treaty of Geneva, dealing with refugees, has a number of criteria to define the status of a refugee. Only persons with a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political convictions or social class, are considered to be ‘refugees’ and are granted the rights that belong to this status. The main conditions are that a person finds himself in a foreign country and does not have legal protection in the country of his nationality.

In 2010, people are on the move for other reasons than just war or violence. At this moment the international law does not yet recognise such reasons. This means that in many cases environmental refugees can not count on any material or juridical support.

LiSER foundation was founded in 2002 because, despite the huge numbers of environmental refugees, there is no organisation that focuses on environmental refugees world-wide.

Environmental refugees are often not labelled as such, and are not recognised by the general public. The main reasons for the lack of attention are the different reasons for environmental degradation, the vast variety of periods for which persons stay environmental refugees, and the needs of the people involved. Furthermore, the causes and consequences of an environmental disaster might lay far away from each other, in time as well as in space. Very often, one can not pinpoint a single and clear cause for the disaster. In some cases it is impossible to pinpoint the responsible persons.

LiSER was founded by people who are involved in refuge care, environmental organisations, human rights organisations and development agencies. The main goal of LiSER is to see these various organisations join together by broadening their original working goals and mandate to environmental refugees.

LiSER wants to enforce the material and juridical position of environmental refugees. Firstly, LiSER focuses on these refugees who lack any means or possibilities to rebuild their own subsistence.

For the near future we have the following objectives:

-       an analysis of the problems of environmental refugees: who is involved, how many are involved, what are their main needs, etc.

-       to enforce the juridical position of the environmental refugees where ever they are.

-       putting the issue of environmental refugees on the agenda of refugee care organisations, environmental organisations, human rights organisations and the development agencies



You can contact LiSER if you want to organise an information evening about environmental refugees. You can contact us to make an appointment.



Are you interested or want to know more about environmental refugees or about LiSER?

You can contact us at:

LiSER Foundation

Zandlaan 34

2121 VS  Bennebroek

The Netherlands

Tel: ++31 23 5332892

E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Giro: 9321158 on name of Stichting Living Space

Chamber of Trade: no. 34174170.