Richie Bartlett

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India needs to look beyond its security paradigm in dealing with climate migrants from Bangladesh.

In the recently concluded third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated that roughly 30 million Bangladeshis would become ‘climate migrants’ due to global warming, a phenomenon which, according to the Bangladesh Change Strategy and Action Plan 2009, has already begun. In the past too, several climate change reports have stated that Bangladesh will be severely hit by climate change. The Stern Review 2007, for instance, noted that sea-level rise due to climate change could submerge one-fifth of its existing territory and force many to leave their homes in Bangladesh.

Climate-induced migrants are largely affected by slow-onset disasters, occurring due to rising sea levels and increased salination of freshwater which in the long run can make a place uninhabitable. This results in forced displacement which current international law cannot deal with adequately, as laws such as the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), International Human Rights Laws and Guiding Principles on International Displacement, do not deal expressly with climate-induced cross border movements. Climate migrants for instance, are unlikely to be considered refugees under the Refugee Convention. And it is unlikely that they will be able to invoke the non-refoulement principle under existing human rights law, which would protect them from being forcibly repatriated to countries where their lives continue to be at risk.

Climate migrants are unlikely to be considered refugees under the Refugee Convention.

Environmental factors add to the existing hardships surrounding conventional migration patterns such as forced displacements due to economic, social and cultural reasons. The lack of government support, insufficient response mechanisms, limited access to basic amenities, public health issues and poverty in host countries compound the situation. With adequate adaptation measures undertaken by both countries, climate migrants may eventually have the choice to be rehabilitated in their own country. However, this would require the identification of climate migrants from those the host government usually considers to be ‘illegal’ migrants, which in itself is a politically fraught and complex task.

Bangladesh’s predicament 🔗

Bangladesh has witnessed 22 percent of its households affected by tidal-surge floods, and 16 percent affected by riverbank erosion. In the future, because of large scale movement of people towards urban areas, the newly populated location may not be equipped to effectively adapt to climate migrants. It is in these circumstances the state may prompt people to shift their base to neighbouring countries. India therefore becomes a natural choice for Bangladeshi climate migrants due to its close cultural ties. If Bangladesh is able to provide effective recovery to those displaced, there is the possibility of making provisions to safely and non-coercively reinstate the affected people back in their country. However, India would still have to share the economic costs while the migrants are within its borders. Although India may express a political unwillingness to accommodate migrants within its territory, in the long term, it will have to do so on humanitarian grounds and because of international laws (which offer some protection to migrants) already in place.

Sheikh Hasina has already stated her inability to respond adequately to rising sea-levels, largely resulting from global emissions to which Bangladesh has contributed very little in the first place: its share in the global output is only 0.02 percent. This, in spite of the fact that Bangladesh has taken steps to develop its own strategy to fight this threat as a quick response. In 2009, Bangladesh had developed a Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, with a clear focus on impact management and low carbon development. Further, recognizing the uncertainties and inadequacies of ‘adaptation finance’ from bilateral and multilateral sources, Bangladesh established the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund, setting up a budgetary allocation of USD 100 million each year from 2009 to 2012.

Sheikh Hasina indicated that since Bangladesh will not be able to deal with this environmental menace on its own, it has sought the support of various institutions and countries worldwide to finance its climate goals. To what extent Bangladesh will be able to garner climate funds to run its adaptation and mitigation objective remains to be seen.

On the other hand, India is expected to face further challenges in addressing the concerns of possible climate migrants in the future if it continues to view Bangladeshi migrants strictly through a security prism. From this perspective, migrants can only be seen as a threat to the economy of India’s border-states, putting further strains on bilateral relations. This anxiety was evident in the manifestos laid out by India’s major political parties in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, which did not devote much attention to the issue of climate migrants and continued to see existing migration patterns from a security angle. The rhetoric of mainstream parties, especially the BJP, is influenced more by its own political considerations rather than recognising the reality on the ground, leaving the different reasons for migration to India nearly unexamined.

The current context 🔗

Conventional migration already poses a strain on both the host country as well as the home country and it can only be further compounded by climate-induced migration if it is not dealt with in more nuanced ways. The fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on 31 March 2014 aptly states that “climate change will lead to new challenges to states and will increasingly shape both conditions of security and national security policies”. It also states that future rates of sea-level rise are expected to exceed those of recent decades, resulting in increased coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion into the surface and groundwaters, which will eventually hamper agricultural productivity.

Though the onus lies on home states for rehabilitating their citizens as per Principle 25 of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, it is possible that their economy might receive a severe blow from a natural disaster and find itself incapacitated to tackle migration within its own territory. Moreover, the obvious fact remains that no single country alone can handle the complex problem of migration, unless it collaborates with the receiving state under accepted international norms.

India should undertake such measures with an appreciation of the fact that migration and mobility are adaptation strategies followed in all regions that experience climate variability. India cannot isolate or even insulate itself from this potential ‘threat’.

Deciphering the status quo 🔗

An important question is whether internally displaced persons (IDPs) affected by climate change should be accorded more privileges and be entitled to move to a destination of their choice?

The United Nation’s ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’ defines IDPs as:

Persons or group of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their home or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

It further confers on IDPs the right to seek safety in another part of the country; to leave their country; to seek asylum in another country; and to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.

Significantly, according to the Cancun Agreements in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of December 2010, adaptation to climate change will take the form of human movement including migration, displacement and planned relocation to get populations out of harm’s way. These plans are still evolving and yet to be operationalised.

The Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (Refugee Convention) does not cover persecution of a people on account of climate change at all. It restricts its focus on five grounds, including those of political opinion and nationality. The Guiding Principles on IDPs, meanwhile, is meant only to assist governments in providing security to people affected by man-made disasters (including climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions). Therefore, while the Refugee Convention cannot guarantee protection to IDPs resulting from climate change (in spite of the fact that these people too face the similar risks of that of a refugee), the Guiding Principles remains only a soft law instrument, making any new policy vision for climate migrants difficult.

It is because of these shortcomings that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has offered to work with states to develop a guiding framework which can apply to situations of external displacement, ie forced displacement across borders, in addition to those already covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The picture in the meantime will continue to be tenuous regarding climate-induced internally displaced persons in Bangladesh as the world itself evolves a guiding framework under which climate migrants are treated uniformly.

Options for India 🔗

Given the challenges India could face due to slow and sudden onsets of disasters (in addition to the more conventional forms of migration), it makes sense for it to coordinate with UNHCR along with countries like Bangladesh and Maldives in developing a guiding framework, instead of laying back and confining itself with limited options like border management and prevention of cross-border displacement and migration. Besides, India should revisit and explore the existing mechanisms which deal with external displacement. In the US, for instance, the Immigration and Nationality Act provides for an option of ‘Temporary Protection Status’ for those who have been affected by an environmental disaster.

Further, on a bilateral front, both India and Bangladesh should study the model followed by Australia and New Zealand that supports people from neighbouring countries suffering from the consequences of climate change. This could even have an impact on future trade relations between the two countries. Hence, India should look at migration as an opportunity rather than a threat and start working to formulate strategies with all the stakeholders, especially Bangladesh, to deal with the potential threat of climate induced migration in the most proactive manner.