Bangladesh and the Reality of Climate Refugees
Madeline Metras, Writer on Asia-Pacific Affairs
9 March, 2019
In the next 50 years, Bangladesh expects between 25 and 30 million people to be displaced by the effects of climate change. With the ever increasing frequency of sudden onset climate disasters such as floods and the looming slow onset of sea level rise in the region, Bangladeshis are being forced to move in order to stay above water. Coastal erosion associated with ever stronger storms, along with the encroachment of salt water onto low-lying agricultural land has caused people to lose not only their livelihoods but their land. As a result many internally displaced peoples are flocking to large cities in order to find refuge, and in the last 17 years alone the number of people living in slums in Bangladesh’s cities has risen by 60 percent. The strain on resources caused by the loss of agricultural land and increased density in cities speaks to the limited capacity of the country to absorb such a large population of internally displaced people. These displaced people will have to seek refuge across international borders and the human faces of climate change will soon arrive at our doorstep.
Although climate change is expected to cause the displacement of millions of people, particularly in the acutely vulnerable Asia-Pacific region, there remains difficulties in defining their status as refugees. “Climate refugees” are not formally recognized under the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which acts as the global standard for refugee protection. Under this convention, refugee status extends to those who have a “well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” There have been reservations about broadening this definition to include climate refugees out of concern that doing so will draw resources away from those who are most in need of support by the international community. A further difficulty arises in attributing migration to climate change because it is often not the sole factor which drives people to leave a particularly affected region. The distinction between forced and voluntary movement is blurred because the factors that influence whether or not one moves are rarely climate related. An individual or community’s capacity to adapt, to offer livelihood diversification options, and affordability are often strong influences in the decision to move. However difficult, the reality of climate refugees is one that we are currently facing and which will grow ever more pressing with time.
The displacement of peoples represents only the tip of the iceberg of cascading global political issues that will arise as a result of climate change. Drought and the destabilization of major river systems across Asia, along with agricultural land loss due to sea-level rise will result in food and water insecurity for millions of people. In addition, climate change acts as a threat multiplier for social unrest which has been exemplified recently in Syria, where long running droughts led to food insecurity, poverty, and rapidly unsustainable urbanization resulting in political and social conflicts. Resource scarcity caused by the detrimental effects of climate change will fuel future conflict as more people must be supported by fewer resources.
Climate Change is a global issue and yet those most culpable for its proliferation have so far remained largely unaffected. As instances of extreme weather worsen and the human effects of climate change grow, the global political community must come to account for its shared responsibility in the creation of this problem and find solutions for those who have been left behind. This issue can no longer be ignored and our borders can no longer remain closed while those who are the least equipped to deal with the repercussions of climate change have been hit the hardest. Michael P. Nash’s 2010 documentary Climate Refugees quotes Winston Churchill in a speech he made to parliament in which he states “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedience, of delays, is coming to its close, in its place we are entering a period of consequences.” This statement has never had more salience than in the current political discussion surrounding climate change.