When we hear the word “refugee”, notions, judgements and scenarios come to mind. We think about the people who had to flee away from their native villages/towns/cities for safer havens in other countries to avoid persecution or ongoing social, economic, religious and political strife. We think about Syria and the news that gets circulated everyday about men, women and children being brutal victims of a deadly war of repression and tyranny. We hear about the escalating death tolls from missile and chemical attacks, we learn about Syrians trying hard to cross and enter international borders of the European Union, only to be met by resistance in the limiting of international migration. 

The legal definition of this term is limited to a condition which states that a refugee is someone who has been “forced” to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. An individual has to flee his/her own country and migrate to another country to be officially termed a refugee and be eligible for protection under international law, while also be a beneficiary to several kinds of international and domestic aids. Now, the question arises: how do climate refugees fit in the given backdrop? 

Who are climate refugees?

Climate refugees are people who get displaced and are forced to migrate within and outside their country as a consequence of climatological factors such as extreme temperatures, widespread floods and droughts, rises in sea level, tsunamis, exacerbating coastal erosion, desertification and other natural calamities. There are several other definitions for a climate refugee coined by researchers and international agencies, but none of them have been accepted or legitimised globally under the domain of international law. Research evidence estimates that most of the climate refugees are internally displaced and this affected refugee group consists mostly of the marginalised, smallholding and/or landless agrarian community who are the direct and most susceptible victims of climate change related brutalities. 

The global debate about climate refugees has gained momentum in the last decade as empirical evidence grows, bringing to light the impact of climatological events on the livelihoods of the marginalised communities. Some researchers have questioned the monocausal relation of linking migration to climate change while others have questioned the use of terms “environmental refugees” and “environmental migrants” as separate within the scope of the legal definition of a refugee. Uncertainties about proving the exact extent of mass migration as a result of climate change and lack of data that systematically monitors and reports cross-border displacement due to climate change, policymakers throughout the world have always sidelined this issue.  

Since climate/environmental refugees do not get same legal protection and recognition as that of a refugee (as per United Nations High Convention for Refugees-UNHCR rules), climate refugees are excluded from claiming benefits of international and domestic aid that can help them overcome, adapt to and mitigate climate change-related consequences. As a result, these victims are left to cope alone, are subjected to racial profiling and are under constant fear of deportation from the migrated country. 

Analyzing global trends

The Global Report on Internal Displacement, 2017 reports 227.6 million people being displaced worldwide as a result of natural disasters from 2008-2016 with an estimated 24.2, 19.2 and 19.1 million new displacements in 2016, 15 and 14, respectively, due to sudden geophysical hazards like earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions, coupled with climatically-induced events of extreme floods, droughts, severe temperatures, etc. Around 64 percent of the total 227.6 million displacements were caused by very large and mega scale disasters events. Weather-related events displaced 195.7 million people from 2008-16 and 31.9 million were displaced due to geophysical events. These statistics are a growing proof of climate change-induced displacement and underlines the gravity of understanding this issue more holistically.

In 2016, Philippines, India and China faced extreme disaster events that resulted in the displacement of millions. 4,969,00 people in the Philippines were evacuated from typhoons Nina and Haima. 1,990,000 people in China left their homes due to floods along the Yangtze River. 1,670,000 were displaced in India due to Bihar floods. Researchers have also noted that climate change-induced extreme drought (period 2007-2010) was one of the contributory factors that fuelled the Syrian refugee crisis (there is an alternative view point to this claim as well,). There is other evidence that links climate change-stimulated widespread drought to internal conflict and increased displacement in South Sudan. There are growing research evidences of climate change related displacement internally and outside national borders and such data evidences should be used to influence the law making agencies to formulate plans and polices that legally recognises the term climate refugees and provide them with same or improvised legitimate rights and/or benefits like those a Refugee is entitled to.

Climate Refugees and the Indian Subcontinent

The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. This region is home to millions living under sub-poverty levels who depend primarily upon the agriculture sector for sustenance. This populace consist mainly of women and children more vulnerable to climate change-related displacement and ironically contribute the least to this phenomenon. In recent times, climate change-induced displacement has exacerbated migration levels in the low-lying coastal areas of the Brahmaputra basin, covering areas of Assam, Orissa, Kolkata in India and a majority of Bangladesh’s areas--one-fourth of its land is five feet above sea level while two-third is less than 15 feet above the sea level, leaving the areas prone to flooding.

Bangladesh is expected to suffer most from rises in sea level as a direct result of rivers overflowing in the monsoon seasons, as well as receding glaciers in the Himalayan continent. A three-foot rise in sea level is expected to maroon 20 percent of India and displace more than 300 million people by the end of 21st century. As of 31st March 2016, a total of 1,040,000 people were internally displaced in Bangladesh, whereas 6,14,000 displacements were natural disaster-induced. Around 2,400,000 people were reported to be internally displaced in India in the year 2016, whereas Nepal accounted for 31,000 and Sri Lanka for 5,000,00 displacements.  

The Sunderban Delta is already suffering increased incidents of floods, cyclones, salt water intrusion and rises in sea levels, resulting in land erosion and submergence of islands. Forecasts estimate around 50 to 120 million people in Bangladesh will be affected may end up becoming climate refugees of Bangladesh in India. Further estimates point towards an increase in cross-border migration trends in and out of India as a result of earthquakes and water-induced disasters in Nepal, droughts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the rise in sea levels around the Maldives. 

India has been a safe haven for refugees from Bangladesh and Nepal who mostly migrate to metro cities and end up in decrepit slums. Given the issue of India’s own climate-induced internal migration and already saturated metro cities, providing domestic and international climate refugees a basic standard of living may be impossible.

A Greenpeace 2008 report forecasted the number of out-migration in different Indian states by the end of 2100. States of West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were projected to face the highest rates of climate refugees with 10 million, 12 million and 10 million people moving out from the states. These statistics are a call for governments as well as international agencies to focus investment on reducing the negatives impacts of climate change and making concrete decisions to support and protect climate refugees.

Is there a solution?

The issue of climate refugees has to be tackled holistically by taking into considerations the strategies to address climate change on a broader scale. International, national, city, state and community-wide organisations have to invest in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in order to reduce displacements caused by more frequent disasters like floods, droughts, typhoons, etc. The 2015 Paris Climate Accord highlighted this issue and has laid down country specific pledges to reduce emissions and curb further temperature rise, which implicitly would be able to tackle the problems of climate refugees by reducing the displacements as a result of more stable weather patterns. 

A consensus among the international community on the definition of a climate refugee must be established. They should not be left hanging in the category of “no-where” or “internally displaced” people, but rendered a legitimate status of a refugee and placed under the responsibility of UNHCR & UNFCCC, local, state, national and regional governments of respective countries in which climatological events affect their populations. The definition of a refugee should be broadened to acknowledge climate-affected peoples as beneficiaries to protection and aid. It is high time to make policymakers around the world sensitive to this pressing issue so they take this agenda on to sustain our planet and its people.

(This article has been contributed by Akshat Mishra who is the Founding Editor of Pathways to Development- Journalism about the environment, sustainability, and policy from researchers on the ground. Akshat is also working as a Senior Research Associate  with CUTS International)