Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Environmental Refugees

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the beginning of 2005 there were 19,200,000 people "of concern" to the agency--refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), and previously displaced persons still requiring assistance. The UNHCR, following the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, counts as "refugees" only those persons who have left their own country due to a well-founded fear of persecution. There are, of course, other reasons why people may feel it necessary to leave their homes to seek security elsewhere.

The disaster (part natural, part anthropogenic) in New Orleans has produced a million or more "environmental refugees." To see refugees of any kind in the United States is shocking, but it is not unprecedented. In the 1930s, three million people left Oklahoma to escape the catastrophic environmental collapse that produced the "Dust Bowl."

What makes America's refugees different from those we occasionally glimpse in sporadic news reports from Chad, for example, where thousands of Sudanese have fled in an effort to escape genocidal campaigns in Darfur, is the character of the accommodations we offer our refugees. Rather than erecting tent cities as the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee have done in Africa, America is housing its refugees inside the symbols of its wealth: its domed sports stadiums. In Houston, it was a spare domed stadium, the Astrodome, that was first pressed into service as a camp for environmental refugees. In the Astrodome, in Reliant Stadium, and in New Orleans' own Superdome, people too poor ever to even hope to be able to buy tickets on the fifty-yard line find themselves sleeping on cots at midfield.

The incongruity of people who have lost all of what little they ever possessed sleeping in arenas where people with six-figure salaries go to watch athletes with seven- and eight-figure salaries is startling. And while Americans' outpouring of assistance to the flooding victims in New Orleans is gratifying, we must not congratulate ourselves on our generosity without first asking what people in other parts of the world are asking about us: How did we ever become so complacent about such poverty in the midst of such wealth?