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India at the Centre of Debate Surrounding ‘Environmental’ Migration in South Asia

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At a time when migration has become one of the biggest challenges facing the European Union, the debate surrounding the role of environmental factors in fuelling conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, causing migration, is gaining momentum. Ever since the Arab Spring erupted in 2010-2011, several studies have sprung up linking it to climatic factors – affecting wheat production in countries such as Russia and China, leading to a spike in global wheat prices and in turn exacerbating the socio-political crisis in countries like Egypt. Now climate security analysts have found ostensible links between environmental change and the ongoing civil war in Syria – predominantly the mishandling of the worst long-term drought that had plagued the country since 2006.

Linking Environmental Change to Migration

In academic and other literature concerning climate change, the term ‘climate refugee’ continues to find place, especially to evoke security implications of climate change. Thomas Homer-Dixon and Norman Myers have repeatedly made the case for recognising environmental refugees as an “emergent security issue” and the need for policy responses towards tackling this issue, by providing empirical analyses of environmentally induced forced migration. The Paris agreement (COP21) also takes note of migration and seeks to establish a “task force” to “develop recommendations”. However, the deeply political nature of the issue forced the parties to avoid any legally-binding obligations. The Pacific Island countries’ clarion call to create a “coordination facility” for managing climate refugees was eventually struck down and removed from the final draft of the agreement. Their biggest neighbour in the region, Australia, helped defeat the proposal.

First of all, international law does not recognise “environmental refugees”. Therefore, the law itself has to be changed first, in order to fit “environmental refugees” into an expanded legal definition of a refugee. Recently, in the U.S., a Louisiana tribe (Isle de Jean Charles, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans) was granted the status of first “official climate refugees” in the country. According to reports, the tribe has lost 98 percent of its land due to sea level rise, coastal erosion and flooding; and now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded $52 million to the tribe for “resilient infrastructure and housing projects”. Individual countries could take such progressive steps, but at a time when migration is being looked at so negatively through the prism of (in)security – as a security threat (Europe as a case in point) – an internationally coordinated policy can be considered nothing less than a mirage.

India’s Position on Environmental Migration

The discourse on environmental refugee or forced migration is highly polemical. In countries such as India, “environmental refugee” has not yet become a part of accepted terminology – in line with its non-recognised (or at best only informal) status in international law. Even while referring to migration (in this case, potential) from Bangladesh as a result of climate change, sea-level rise and the loss of land, the Indian position has traditionally been pinned on socio-economic and political problems in Bangladesh rather than environmental ones. The reasons for migration are most often complex and overlapping, with environmental degradation possibly being one among several. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and any socio-economic, political or environmental disruption invariably results in population movement. Owing to the scarcity of land and other non-renewable resources as well as economic opportunities and social mobility, people are forced to look for safer pastures across the border – in India, which is culturally not very different and where the fear of persecution is less.

Another factor which also cannot be discounted is the nature of politics of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The Indian state of Assam has long provided asylum to Bangladeshi immigrants. However, in recent years, there have been communal tensions in the state between the locals and the immigrants over the shifting religious and demographic landscape, sharing of common property/resources, and granting of constitutional rights to the immigrants such as voting rights. There are also allegations that some of the illegal immigrants are involved in “gun running, fake currency rackets and drug running”; and that illegal immigration could be used by radical and terrorist organisations based in Bangladesh to infiltrate into India. Some approve of providing temporary or seasonal asylum, but when the immigrants choose to settle in India permanently, there is a significant amount of resistance due to these inherent dilemmas, based on the inclusion versus exclusion debate. Hence, securitising environment-induced migration in such circumstances would be problematic as it would entail taking on obligations to safeguard Bangladeshi citizens’ interests.   

The predictions regarding mass migration made on the basis of climate models and other relevant independent variables such as ecological or geomorphological properties, socio-economic indicators, and political state of affairs among others, involve a certain degree of uncertainty. This is a good reason for policy-makers to sideline the issue for the moment. Furthermore, the veracity of empirical evidence used to link climate change to conflict and mass migration has also come under the scanner. While the facts presented by analysts in terms of the impacts of climate change may be accurate, one cannot be sure of the extent to which they have contributed to conflict and/or migration.

The so-called “mass migration”, involving millions of people, triggered by climate change is indeed less likely to affect India domestically in the short or medium term. But what the country cannot afford to do at this stage is to neglect the role of gradual and abrupt changes in environment in aggravating population movement as well as their long-term first and second-order impacts. History says so. India was struck by the vagaries of environmental change in the 1990s. The island of Lohachara, inhabited by 10,000 people was washed off the map; but this was confirmed by a group of Indian scientists only in 2006. The island lay in India’s part of the Sundarbans. There are conflicting reports as to how this might have occurred. It might have been easier for everyone to pin the blame on global warming and sea level rise, which is why most reports readily claimed that this was the first time that an inhabited island had become a victim of global warming and the rising sea levels. This helped strengthen the argument for securitising climate change and climate-induced migration as well.

Another incident in South Asia that grabbed the headlines was the submergence of the New Moore Island, which both India and Bangladesh claimed as its territory, in 2010. Many commented dramatically that the rising sea waters resolved the dispute between India and Bangladesh. However, a few experts discard these claims and found poor dredging, changes in river dynamics and eastward tilt of the tectonic plate as potential causes for the vanishing of Lohachara. Interestingly, in 2007, a group of scientists using satellite images and on-the-spot surveys revealed that the submerged Lohachara and Bedford islands are re-emerging. 

What the Future Holds for India

The fact of the matter is that whether or not climate change caused the disappearance of these islands and whether this submergence was temporary or permanent, environmental change is triggering unpredictable events that India needs to be prepared for. This includes possible migration from many endangered islands, such as Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to the mainland.

If one takes the larger South Asian picture, India is also expected to address issues concerning environmental migration into the country from low-lying countries in the region like Bangladesh and the Maldives. As far as the impacts of environmental change on the Maldives is concerned, it is already coping with a series of problems such as beach erosion, crunch in freshwater resources, excessive waste, sea level rise, to name just a few. The country has around 1,200 islands and atolls with a landmass of 115 square miles. At its highest point, it is only 8 feet above sea level. According to the current predictions made by a few scientific studies, 77 percent of the country could be submerged by the end of the century. It has also been predicted that 45 centimetre of sea-level rise may inundate 10-15 percent of the land of Bangladesh by 2050, resulting over 35 million climate refugees from its coastal districts.

Is India Prepared?

These predictions are not completely reliable, but they foretell uncertain changes that India needs to be prepared for. No country can afford to be complacent about uncertain changes in environment that could trigger socio-economic transformations. One can neither wait for complete information about a certain change, nor wait for the uncertainty to disappear. If one always attempts to achieve strong prediction, it tends to narrow the scope of futuristic assessments. Therefore, it is imperative for India to join hands with its neighbouring countries to undertake contingency planning so that it does not find itself in an uninformed and unprepared situation when unusual conditions are encountered.

Migration itself need not be seen through the ‘negative security’ lens – as a security threat. Besides, the traditional way of analysing migration in terms of people from the poor countries – depicted as dangerous and disruptive – moving to the rich countries – considered largely advanced and refined – is ludicrous and objectionable. Not only does it have racial overtones, it also starts the debate on wrong foot without leaving room for any practical policy proposals to address the issue. In a way, in the attempt to avoid “securitising” the environment, India is inadvertently “securitising” it by evading long-term action on the uncertainties that it confronts. 

India is neither a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, not does it have a national refugee protection framework. Yet it has given refuge to thousands of asylum seekers – from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan and so on. India has also allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate programmes for some of them. Therefore, a country that has a history of managing refugees and asylum seekers from across the region is well-placed to work jointly with its neighbours to tackle environmental change (including climate change and extreme weather events) and related future migration.

Scope for Regional Cooperation in South Asia

An old saying goes – prevention is better than cure. Joint programmes to undertake mitigation and adaptation measures in the region have become a necessity, especially in the wake of the Paris agreement. If environmental disruption can be prevented or managed to reduce its impact, forced migration and displacement could be nipped in the bud. In addition, organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) could launch mechanisms to address different kinds of migration that exist in the region, and as a part of these mechanisms, look into myriad environmental factors that play a role. Under their umbrella, both temporary and permanent migration has to be addressed. In cases where displacement is caused by events such as disasters, reconstruction and population resettlement in the affected area is a possibility. The cases in which the land is lost or is rendered uninhabitable by several reasons (such as the lack of essential resources like water), a more coordinated and integrated policy, which takes into account social, cultural, legal and political realities, has to be crafted. 

Presently, India is being seen as an antagonistic state, trying to ward off illegal migrants from Bangladesh to its territory by fencing the border. Although fencing is nowhere connected to climate-induced migration, this step would ultimately be linked to the latter to create an alarming scenario – where the two countries are at war with each other due to climate change. This is stretching the debate too far.

Since India is at the centre of this debate, it could lead from the front when it comes to South Asian regional climate diplomacy. While there is a dire need to revamp the legal infrastructure concerning environmental migration internationally, more importantly, diplomatic efforts require to be initiated at the regional level to find solutions to shared migration-related issues. Instead of delving deeper into potential for conflict, South Asian countries should identify potential entry points for cooperation both bilaterally and regionally.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.