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South Asia could profit from targeted policies on climate migration

Narayanganj, Bangladesh

Climate migration is already happening across South Asia due to extreme weather events, droughts and other climate change-related effects and their implications for survival and physical, livelihood and food security. However, the interactions between climate change impacts and socio-economic factors make the task of assessing the risks associated with climate change a daunting challenge. While countries in the region acknowledge that climate change influences migratory patterns, they are largely reluctant to address these linkages as part of existing migration and climate-related policies in a meaningful manner. Moreover, a common position on this issue at the regional level is missing. In this context, what is required is a more robust framework for regional cooperation on climate action, which also includes measures to address climate migration.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states, “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

The IOM defines an “environmentally displaced person” in terms of “persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one.”

The UN Refugee Agency defines a ‘refugee’ as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” A climate or environmental refugee is not yet recognised by international law.

Climate migration hotspots in South Asia 

In South Asia, most parts of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region, islands (including the Maldives and Sri Lanka), coastal areas, arid/semi-arid regions and deltaic regions (including Sundarbans) are hotspots of climate migration. Studies show that most migrants identify economic causes as the primary reason for leaving. However, environmental causes are undeniably also a major factor as they interact with the ability of communities and households to cope with macro and micro-level changes in relation to demographic, socio-economic, and governance/policy dynamics.

Rural-to-urban migration in particular is typically linked to the overdependence of rural population on the agricultural sector, which is highly vulnerable to climate change. In Bangladesh, climate change has shown to be a major driver of migration from coastal areas (affected by sea level rise, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and tropical cyclones) to the capital city of Dhaka, which has become one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Moreover, rural-to-urban and inward migration (from coastal to inland areas) have been pinpointed as leading to “unchecked urbanisation”. For instance, in India, people moving from rural and coastal areas to cities after climate-induced disasters have contributed to the increase in the number of urban poor. As cities often lack the infrastructure to host migrants, and to provide them with basic services such as drinking water and healthcare, this can create  challenges for urban planning and development.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that the reverse trend is also possible, and can be problematic. For example, in India, the lockdown measures adopted by the government to contain the spread of the pandemic have led to massive urban-to-rural migration. This has exposed serious gaps in existing migration-related policies in the country – so much so that the Indian government admitted that there were no (official) mechanisms to ascertain the number of labourers who moved from cities to villages since the lockdown started, as well as to account for deaths during migration, and job losses.

Cross-border population movements in South Asia   

The data on internal migration and displacement may be more robust in comparison to cross-border population movements in South Asian countries. This is owing in part to the political connotations associated with the latter as well as the lack of legal mechanisms to define cross-border population movements that makes it difficult for countries to provide reliable figures. Although scarce, available data shows that “seasonal migration” from Nepal to India is quite common; and that this phenomenon may be further exacerbated by climate change. Environmental factors such as frequent and more intense floods, causing the loss of lands and livelihoods, have also played an important role in driving migration from Bangladesh to India.

Amidst these many political and legal challenges, there is scepticism around the fact that South Asian countries could agree on a common approach to deal with climate migration. Even the South Asian countries’ policies on ‘refugee’ movements are not institutionalised and ridden with legal loopholes and political problems. Among the South Asian countries, only Afghanistan has so far signed and ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to Status of Refugees (UNCSR). Historically, India has accepted (either de facto or de jure) several refugees (not linked to climate change), despite not being a signatory of the UNCSR, including the Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Chakma refugees from Bangladesh, to name a few communities.

However, a visible surge in “anti-outsider sentiment” based on economic/resource competition and religious/cultural differences have complicated policy-making in parts of the country such as the north-eastern states of Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and others. Other countries have also accepted refugees in the region. Bangladesh, for instance, hosts over a million Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar due to political persecution by the country’s military junta. Here again, in Cox’s Bazar, where the refugees are currently housed, anti-Rohingya sentiment is rising among the locals due to various reasons, including the mismanagement of international aid and grievances over its distribution between the refugees and local poor. In such a scenario, the issue of climate migration can be held hostage to a politicised and securitised narrative, which does not lead to constructive solutions.

A new regional framework to address climate migration

Governments and other stakeholders in the region have increasingly come to view internal migration  as an adaptation, livelihood and survival strategy as the vulnerabilities increase in the coming years. In this respect, it is important for them to work towards creating frameworks for the protection of climate migrants (particularly environmentally displaced peoples), which are currently largely missing in all the South Asian countries. Moreover, they should prioritise investments to equip cities with the capacities and resources they need to assess vulnerabilities and diversify the labour market to absorb rural immigrants. Some initiatives have already been made in this direction with assistance from aid and donor organisations, and research institutes. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network is a case in point, working on ‘developing and implementing city resilience strategies,” in a few South and Southeast Asian cities, through vulnerability assessment, capacity-building and finance mobilisation. Similarly, in rural areas, there is a need for ushering in large-scale agrarian reforms to help farmers cope with climate shocks and encourage livelihood diversification through skills development and capacity-building.

At the same time, in the absence of enforceable principles within the international law concerning climate-related population movements, there is a need to push for a stronger regional climate change framework that could also address the issue of migration and displacement. A regional strategy needs to focus on a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change on migratory patterns. It should include, among other measures, projections of possible future trends, as well as combine quantitative and qualitative information to shed light on the driving factors and pathways of climate-related migration, disaggregated by gender, age and other identify factors that determine different vulnerabilities and needs. Only on this basis can a regional strategy support solutions, for example, looking at livelihood diversification and relocation options, or even measures targeted at improving cities’ ability to absorb migrants.

Any regional framework to address climate migration should be a part of, and mainstreamed into, a broader regional mandate to advance climate action cooperation that looks into both adaptation and mitigation. National governments could use existing regional platforms to this end, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which already introduced a three-year action plan on climate change in 2018. Other regional intergovernmental organisations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development could also serve as platforms to address climate migration at the regional level and in a context-specific way, in this case focusing on migration in mountain areas in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. Overall, however, it will be important to delink any effort at creating such a framework from existing national legislative and policy measures related to ‘migration’, as the latter are increasingly enmeshed in controversial debates (for instance, India’s Citizenship Amendment Act or Bangladesh’s approach towards Rohingya refugees), as well as historical grievances.

Pathways towards a region-wide strategy

Climate change has increasingly become a key factor in driving migration within and across the South Asian region. As these movements are seldom regulated, this can pose security threats by giving rise to competition for increasingly scarce resources with host populations and exacerbating urbanisation challenges – as the case of Bangladesh already shows.

South Asian countries need to step up their game and agree on regional strategy building on existing regional and sub-regional arrangements to address this issue. Climate change cooperation has long been stymied by geopolitical and security factors, so a new approach that accommodates the region’s priorities alongside its climate-related needs is overdue. The region also has to break the shackles of the historical baggage concerning migrants and refugees to look at this issue through a cooperative lens.

This way, the region could offer an example to other countries and regions dealing with these issues – as an international strategy is lacking. At the same time, international support could help South Asian countries better understand the problem and come up with actions to address it. The UN system and UN agencies such as the IOM also have an important role to help inform the debate and mobilise finances, and to enhance member states’ capacity to improve knowledge assessment and implement policies. Importantly, donor/aid agencies and other organisations involved in development cooperation should work towards integrating this reality into their projects and strategies in the region.


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]