Climate change and its outcomes ares no longer abstract scientific concepts. Their consequences are felt in the scorching sun in Bengaluru or the unexpected torrential rains in Kerala. While the international community has paid much attention to the scientific aspects of climate change, there is another dimension receiving growing interest, i.e. humanitarian problems and challenges posed by global warming and climate change. One such problem that is receiving limelight is the concept of “climate refugees” or “environmental refugees”. The term “environmental refugees” was first coined in 1985 to refer to people who are forced to leave their homes and regions because of the effects of climate change.
The term however does not have a universally accepted definition owing to the fact that the traditional definition of refugee does not include those affected by climate change. The International Organisation for Migration released a working definition which stated that environmental migrants are people who leave their homes or are forced to leave their homes, temporarily or permanently, due to some sudden change in the environment which adversely affects their lives or living condition. They move either within their own country or abroad.
In South Asia, the country that is worst hit by climate change and is seeing a rise in climate refugees is Bangladesh. Owing to its low elevation and proximity to the Himalayas, it receives heavy torrential rains. Extreme weather conditions like floods have displaced large number of its people. For instance, in 2014, a flood which was a consequence of meltwater from the Himalayas, caused such extensive damage that it displaced 3, 25,000 people. After heavy rains in September of 2017, over 1 lakh houses were destroyed, hundred thousands of farmland were flooded and nearly 3 lakh people were forced into emergency shelters. The worse hit were those living on the coasts, where the people were struggling to adapt to increasing coastal erosion, cyclones, salinisation and strong storms.
Having no other option after loss of their land, the people are forced to migrate to the cities. Dhaka, the country’s capital, is bursting at the seams with the onslaught of these climate refugees. The World Bank projected that nearly 4, 00,000 people move to Dhaka every year and 70% of them have moved fearing environmental shock. These cities do not have the resources to absorb such a large population. This forced internal displacement also leads to a myriad of human rights violations. Even upon getting to cities, life does not get easier for people. Rights such as right to life, right to adequate food, to water, to health, to adequate housing, among others remain grave danger. Bangladesh, being a developing nation, is not equipped to deal with this crisis.
The real issue, however, rises when it comes to protection of climate refugees. While the riverine country is moving in the right direction by bringing in several initiatives to combat the effects of climate change like storm resilient infrastructure, cyclone shelters, harnessing renewable, etc., there is still a severe lack of legal framework to govern climate induced displacement. No program under the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) specifically addresses the climate refugee issue. With no policy to meet the migrants’ needs or to determine their rehabilitation, the problem is going to only escalate. Bangladesh leaders have stated that the country needs international funding to help it mitigate the effects of climate change. The West after all has an obligation to compensate for global warming.
There is an increasing need for dialogue, domestically and internationally, to address the issue of climate refugees and to create a legal framework to regulate them. The Bangladeshi climate migrants will face more difficulty when they are forced to cross transnational borders and enter other countries. As climate refugees have no legal recognition under international refugee law, other countries are free to refuse the right of entry or send them back. Bangladesh and the international community must recognise the severity of the problem. It is crucial for people to now begin to prioritize climate change and environmental conditions as an aspect of the overall issues surrounding governance, in addition to economic or social issues. Climate change is after all a global concern and countries must put environment and nature before politics and personal interest.
Picture Credits : Environmental Justice Foundation