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India’s Upcoming Climate Refugee Crisis

Under international law climate refugees have not yet been recognised.

“When much of Bangladesh gets flooded due to climate change, where do you think our people will go? To India obviously… you surround us on three sides.” These ominous words were spoken by a Bangladeshi academic at a meeting in Delhi.

Migration from Bangladesh is already a hot diplomatic and political topic in India. India’s own “border wall” politics have been going on for decades – and find resonance in border states such as West Bengal and Assam. In the campaigns for the 2016 assembly elections in the state of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, who is now the Chief Minister of the state, promised that the Indo-Bangladesh border would be sealed.

The earliest such proposal came in the year 1965, well before the modern state of Bangladesh formed, and India had already fenced much of the 4000km border with Bangladesh when the elections were underway in 2016. The parts that remained were largely riverine areas that are challenging to fence.

In spite of this fence, thousands of Bangladeshis have been estimated to have crossed over into India, driven by poverty, demographic pressure, and even persecution due to political affiliation or religious identity. However, there is one more trigger to migration that has not been given attention. It is one that is far harder to control and address: climate change.

Scientists have been warning that climate change leads to the increasing frequency and intensity of ‘extreme weather events’. These extreme weather events include cyclones and droughts, which impacts food production, flooding of regions, destruction of homes and crops, increase the incidence of water-borne diseases, contamination of drinking water, and has various other adverse consequences. Further, scientists also warn that as monsoon rainfall increases in India, there will be higher flows into the rivers that flow through Bangladesh. Naturally, people living in such climate-stressed regions will be forced to migrate, and in fact, are already having to do so.

Bangladesh contains within it one of the world’s most vulnerable regions insofar climate change is concerned. One-fourth of the country’s area already gets submerged every year due to flooding, and once every few years, there’s a severe flood that submerges up to 60% of the country. Large portions of many islands and low-lying regions have already been lost due to these environmental reasons.

Further, riverbank erosion displaces between 50,000 and 200,000 Bangladeshis every year. This migration is grave enough already and is expected to worsen with the changing climate. By 2050, six to eight million Bangladeshis could be displaced due to intensifying riverbank erosion. Many more millions will be impacted due to increasing frequencies of cyclones and other climate-led disasters.

While Bangladesh is making investments into climate change adaptation, including the construction of cyclone shelters, flood protection and management initiatives, it will not nearly be enough to deal with the humanitarian crisis that is slowly emerging. As the carrying capacity of Bangladeshi cities starts running out, many of the displaced people will inevitably migrate to India, stressing cities and towns that are increasingly exceeding their carrying capacity too.

Under international law, however, climate refugees have not yet been recognised. The issue is indeed a complicated one: even though science tells us that that the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will increase, it is not possible to link any one such event to climate change directly.

While climate refugees have not been defined, the closest term that describes such individuals is “environmental migrant”. The term has been defined United Nation’s migration agency as “persons or groups of persons who (…) for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment (…) are obliged to leave their habitual homes (…)”

In the case of climate change, there is no such “persecution” by militias or governments – only a desperation brought about by the collective actions of humanity over the centuries. Climate refugees are up against the force of nature that no human can control, forced into these situations by the sheer accidents of their births into those regions.

Persecution or no persecution, the Geneva convention has not been signed by India (and Bangladesh). Refugees are therefore not formally accepted and rehabilitated in India. There are over 140 countries that have signed the treaty, and India is one of the last few liberal democracies that are holding out. Unsurprisingly, those who cross over into India do so illegally and then find their ways around the system. In border regions, this has led to conflict with local populations and is exploited for political gain.

Elsewhere, laws are being tested as people claim they are being forced to relocate due to environmental and climate stresses. In 2014, a family from the small island nation of Tuvalu was granted residency in New Zealand on the grounds that climate change is threatening their home country: at the current rate of sea level rise, their home would have been submerged in a few decades. And much before it is fully submerged, storms will bring taller waves and more devastating flooding to their home country.

New Zealand has gone on to consider a new visa regime that could admit a 100 people every year who have been dislocated due to climate change or are under this threat. However, this is unlikely to become a global trend. The inclusion of climate refugees in a Geneva-like convention could open a Pandora’s Box, as there are entire populations in low lying areas that are under threat. Some studies estimate that by 2050, there could be upwards of 200 million climate refugees globally.

Even as it is unlikely that governments will agree to a global treaty, the migration of climate stressed populations will grow. Not having a framework to rehabilitate climate refugees will not only put the refugees at risk, it will also pose security risks to governments. There have already been reports of ISIS using drought and flood affected populations as recruiting grounds in Iraq, and even NATO has flagged these risks.

In India’s case, even if the country somehow magically ensures that there is no climate refugee movement into its territory from abroad, it will still have to grapple with domestic refugees, which are known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). In 2016, there were a whopping 1.5 million Indians who were displaced within the country due to floods and tropical cyclones. According to risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, India is the world’s second most climate change vulnerable region after Bangladesh. Internal displacement within the country is only likely to exacerbate.

Without a framework for dealing with climate refugees, displaced people will be vulnerable to poverty, disease and death. It remains to be seen whether India’s democracy can deal with the crisis in a humane way, putting primacy of prosperity, health and safety of individuals.

Siddharth Singh is an energy and climate policy researcher. He tweets at @siddharth3.

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