updated 10/12/2005 8:29:37 AM ET 2005-10-12T12:29:37

Declining soil fertility, drought, deforestation and other gradual environmental problems could force up to 50 million people from their homes by 2010, U.N. experts predicted Tuesday.

Rising sea levels, expanding deserts and catastrophic weather-induced flooding have already contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions of people, said the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.

“There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena,” said Janos Bogardi, the director of the institute.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates the current number of refugees worldwide at 19.2 million. But UNU says the number of people forced to move because of environmental deterioration already equals and may someday dwarf that number.

Amid such predictions, the institute is urging the international community to “define, recognize and extend support” for such refugees.

Victims of sudden and highly publicized catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 tsunami in Asia benefit from the generosity of the private and public sectors as well as humanitarian relief, UNU said. But millions of others around the world, uprooted by more gradual environmental change receive comparatively little support and are not recognized as “refugees” with the associated benefits, it said.

Among the examples cited by the institute was the Gobi desert in China, which it said expands more than 4,000 square miles per year, threatening many villages. In Turkey 62,000 square miles of farmlands are affected by soil erosion.

Louisiana now loses roughly 25 square miles of land to the sea every year, according to Anthony Oliver-Smith, an anthropology professor at the University of Florida. In Alaska, 213 communities are threatened by tides that creep roughly 10 feet farther inland each year.

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