Displaced: Loyola Chicago Research Shows Long-term Impact of Environmental Disasters

By Anna Gaynor, Content Manager, Loyola University Chicago

 In 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed homes and other buildings across Haiti (photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

In 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed homes and other buildings across Haiti (photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

After any hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, or other catastrophic event, it's not difficult to see the immediate damage: destroyed shorelines, crumbling buildings, flooded streets, flattened landscapes. After the news coverage ends though, what happens to those forced out of their homes can be a longer and more precarious road.

Just one example: of the 1.5 million people displaced after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, nearly 38,000 have still been unable to return home. Children, in particular, face more risks and challenges when their lives are destabilized, and in Haiti, many children, including those with a living parent, were sent to live in orphanages where later reports emerged of sexual abuse as well as labor and sex trafficking.

 Tens of thousands of Haitians spent years living in tent cities following the 2010 earthquake (photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Tens of thousands of Haitians spent years living in tent cities following the 2010 earthquake (photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

“Those who are most vulnerable are children because they often don’t know how to advocate for themselves,” said Katherine Kaufka Walts, director of Loyola University Chicago's Center for the Human Rights of Children. “In these situations, parents and children are doing what they can to survive. That’s a situation that makes youth ripe for various types of exploitation and harm, not just human trafficking.”

The mission of the Center for the Human Rights of Children is to advance and protect the rights of young people, both locally and globally, by coordinating research, education and advocacy across disciplines. Two of the center’s areas of focus are child trafficking and vulnerable youth navigating social systems on their own. When refugee and migrant youth are forced out of their homes, whether it’s due to conflict, violence, natural disasters, political climates or discrimination, they become more susceptible to human rights abuses and violations. Climate change can be a large or contributing factor in such situations.

Walts said, "In many areas, part of war and conflict is a fight for resources. When you have catastrophic events, whether it's drought, hurricanes or storms, that has really serious impacts on both the economy and decisions to migrate, which can lead to political conflict. Such conflict often leads to displacement of children and families, making them more vulnerable to human rights abuses as they are forced to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere."

A closer look:

68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide

50% of the world's nearly 22.5 million refugees are under the age of 18

350% increase in unaccompanied child refugees between 2010-11 and 2015-16

This spring, experts gathered to discuss this issue at Loyola University Chicago’s fifth annual Climate Change Conference, hosted by Loyola’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability and the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership. Dan Amick, an anthropologist and associate dean of faculty at Loyola, moderated a panel on “Climate Refugees in a Changing World,” which focused on the effects of climate change on human societies as well as the challenges still facing Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. United Nations studies suggest that the number of environmental migrants may rise as high as 200 million in the next few decades as climate change continues to stress vulnerable environments.

And as the number of displaced people and refugees continues to grow, children can be easily overlooked. An important part of the Center for the Human Rights of Children’s mission and work is to enforce existing international and national laws that provide them with protection, and to advocate for the unique needs of children as they migrate.

"We have the largest number of displaced people relative to our population that we've had in history," said Walts. "This is a significant historical moment, and displacement of children and families will continue as climate change continues to wreak havoc on our globe and where we live. It is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and one that will require a convergence of experts and stakeholders across disciplines and sectors to address."