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Climate migrants: when your house is no longer home

climate migrants

40.5 million people (climate migrants) globally were displaced in 2020 Image:  CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Sheela Patel
Director, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)
Asif Saleh
Executive Director, BRAC
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • Climate-driven migration forces are being felt across many developing nations as people struggle with droughts, heatwaves, storms and burst rivers on a scale never seen before.
  • 40.5 million people were displaced in 2020, the highest level in 10 years, with disasters responsible for 3 times more people uprooting their lives than conflict and violence.
  • If we want to avert a climate refugee crisis, we need a dual focus on mitigating global warming and putting in systems to support poorer nations to adapt to climate upheaval.

In Dhaka’s teeming city slums, Nurjahan Begum is on the frontline of the climate crisis. She arrived last year from the coast with her family after their small farm growing watermelons, lentils and chillies in the Bay of Bengal was devastated by floods. Now they rent a two-room shack with no windows.

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They are not alone. Up to 2,000 migrants arrive every day in the Bangladeshi capital, making it the world’s fastest-growing megacity. Its crumbling infrastructure cannot cope with the influx, while the lack of housing means that 40% of greater Dhaka’s population of 21 million lives in a slum.

For the people of Bangladesh, who are increasingly vulnerable to monsoon flooding and cyclones as sea levels rise, the worsening climate situation is not a faraway threat. It is a grim reality today.

Cascade of troubles

The same climate-driven migration forces are now being felt across many other developing countries as people struggle with droughts, heatwaves, storms and burst rivers on a scale never seen before. From flooding in Mozambique to hurricanes in central America to extreme heat and erratic rain in India, the problems are piling up for some of the world’s poorest people.

The result is a vast and growing movement of populations who have been forced to leave their homes. According to IDMC’s “Global Report on Internal Displacement”, 40.5 million people globally were displaced in 2020, the highest level in 10 years, with disasters responsible for three times more people uprooting their lives than conflict and violence. Weather-related events accounted for 30 million displacements, or 98% of the disasters total.

Contrary to common belief, disasters triggered by extreme climate conditions are not a short-term problem that can be easily resolved, allowing people to then return home. Rather, climate disruption causes – or compounds – a complex web of food and water shortages, resulting in a cascade of socioeconomic troubles and persistent hardship, as crops fail and people lose their livelihoods.

And unlike in rich countries such as Germany or the US, where severe weather events have also occurred recently, individuals in developing countries lack any meaningful safety net to help them cope with climate-induced setbacks. This further reduces their chances of recovery. As a result, the World Bank estimates that climate change will push between 32 million and 132 million into extreme poverty by 2030.

COVID-19 multiplier

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the problem – both by exacerbating the vulnerabilities of displaced people and by exposing large gaps in knowledge about the scale and true nature of migration patterns. These huge movements of people typically occur inside countries, often at a regional or local level, which means they are frequently overlooked by policymakers.

In India, for example, the initial stages of the pandemic triggered a mass exodus of informal workers from the cities back to the villages as lockdown restrictions decimated jobs. Despite their key role in local economies and in funnelling remittances back to rural communities, many of these workers were effectively invisible to officials.

They include people like auto-rickshaw driver Maduresh Kumar Singh, who was forced to make an arduous journey from his tiny room in Mumbai back to his original home in Uttar Pradesh, after his work dried up and his savings were wiped out in March 2020.

Such migration is driven by multiple factors and is inevitably complex. People are “pulled” to the big cities by economic aspirations and the promise of work, but they are also “pushed” by economic hardship at home – and in many cases climate change is the last straw that tips the balance.

The multi-faceted nature of displacement means it makes little sense to place the causes of migration in separate silos, since climate pressures often coincide with significant population growth, rapid urbanisation and political instability, all of which can drive mass population displacement. The situation is not helped by the fact that existing refugee laws do not recognise environmental or climate pressures as valid reasons for migrants to claim refugee status, because the 1951 Refugee Convention only protects those fleeing war and persecution.

The scale of the challenge is daunting. According to one estimate, 1.2 billion people live in 31 lower-income countries that are not sufficiently resilient to withstand the impact of ecological threats by 2050.

Dual focus

In the run-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, it is time for the global community to pay far more attention to the impact of the climate crisis on these many millions of affected lives. If we want to avert a climate refugee crisis, we need to have a dual focus – both on mitigating global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and putting systems in place to support poorer nations to adapt to climate upheaval.

Tackling both mitigation and adaptation simultaneously will require comprehensive planning and the involvement of local communities, including the empowerment of the urban poor to help obtain the resources they need. Currently, local voices are too often ignored, which can result in apparently “green” policy decisions – such as the laying of a modern railway – that end up displacing even more people.

There are a growing number of piecemeal local initiatives to improve things, such as the Bangladesh-based Climate Bridge Fund, which helps non-governmental organisations implement projects to increase the resilience of people displaced by climate change. But more fundamental change is needed. The global community must give a microphone to the voices of people from the countries most affected, and support them to invest at scale in adaptation initiatives.

Countries like Bangladesh and India have been dealing with the effects of climate change for years and they know what needs to be done, but they lack the resources to put in place the necessary long-term systems. They are in many ways a “canary in the mine” for the rest of the world, with important lessons for many cities around the globe that will face the same challenges in 10 to 20 years’ time.


What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

Tackling the needs of the urban poor will be, without doubt, one of the most pressing issues facing the world in the coming decades. After the “green revolution” that helped transform rural economies in the last century, the 21st century needs an “urban revolution” to build cities fit for Nurjahan Begum, Maduresh Kumar Singh and millions more like them.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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