13 Apr 2023
How climate migration will affect lives of 50 million South Asians annually
As much as 55 percent of the developing world’s population resides in South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. And from these three regions, over 143 million people making up 2.8 percent of the region’s population, will be rendered climate refugees by 2050, predicts a World Bank report. Explaining the problem of climate refugees, Mahika […]

As much as 55 percent of the developing world’s population resides in South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. And from these three regions, over 143 million people making up 2.8 percent of the region’s population, will be rendered climate refugees by 2050, predicts a World Bank report. Explaining the problem of climate refugees, Mahika Khosla shares her insights into the topic in an exclusive interview with LetMeBreathe. Khosla is a junior fellow at the ‘Stimson Center’, a non-profit think tank based out of Washington D.C. With her research interests including forced migration and refugee law, and climate resilience and adaptations in South Asia, she works with the ‘South Asia Program’ at the centre. 

Photo: Mahika Khosla, Junior Fellow, South Asia Program, Stimson Center

Who are climate migrants? People have been migrating since the beginning of civilization, so why is it different this time?

Climate migrants are people who leave their homes due to the impacts of climate change, from natural disasters like floods and droughts to slow-onset impacts such as sea level rise and soil degradation. While migration on grounds of environmental change has always occurred, what makes it different now is the sheer scale at which it is predicted to happen. Each year, 21.5 million people are forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, and the World Bank estimates that by 2050, there will be close to 150 million climate migrants, largely from Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. Another reason the situation is different now is because of the general rise in xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric globally, whereby migrant-friendly policies required to adapt to climate challenges may be met with political backlash by governments. 

Why haven’t climate migrants been given refugee status till now?

Climate migrants have not been given refugee status till now because there exist no international legal instruments that recognizse or define who a ‘climate refugee’ is. The 1951 Refugee Convention, the primary legal document outlining the obligations states have to refugees, was a direct byproduct of World War II, and therefore defines ‘refugees’ as those fleeing persecution on the grounds of ethnicity, race, religion, or sexuality. At present, the UN refers to climate refugees as ‘environmental migrants’.

What are the main challenges around including climate migrants as refugees?

While there are benefits to including climate migrants as a category within the Convention, there are a number of reasonable challenges associated with redefining the definition of a ‘refugee’ in international law. First, the UNHCR and other international humanitarian bodies already face a severe resource shortage with the current state of refugee protection. Unless accompanied by a drastic increase in international funding, expanding the definition of refugees within the Convention will make providing adequate and humane protection and resources to refugees (climate and otherwise) unfeasible. Second, a majority of climate migration at present is internal, placing the responsibility of protection within national jurisdiction. The answer to humane and effective protection lies less in international law and more in national and state level migration policy and management.

Third, migration is almost never an outcome of a single push factor. People tend to migrate as a result of a combination of climate change, poverty, violence, and conflict, and climate change has often been termed a ‘threat multiplier’ that exacerbates pre-existing conditions. Therefore, from a research perspective, it is challenging to identify a direct causal link between climate change and forced migration, making its inclusion into international law less feasible. Finally, there is a severe definitional issue when it comes to the issue of climate refugees. Some people often migrate by choice over time due to slow-onset impacts of climate change, while others are forcibly displaced by non-climate change related environmental hazards like tsunamis or volcano eruptions. Much more legal work must be done to clearly define the terms ‘climate refugee’, ‘climate migrant’, and ‘environmental refugee’, so that adequate and specific institutional frameworks can be provided for each group.

Migration has always been posed as a negative last-resort response to climate change. Why should the discourse change from “migration as last resort” to “migration as opportunity”?

Much of the literature and policy around climate change has framed migration as a dire negative consequence of migration, or rather, a failure of communities to adapt to climate changes in their regions of origin. Multilateral institutions like UNHCR, USAID, the World Bank as well as western governments view migration as a failure of the development agenda rather than a structural condition of a globalised world, simply because they have not created the mechanisms for the effective distribution of resources.

In reality, migration has always been a common and effective adaptation strategy for people to respond to environmental changes and will continue to happen so long as the environment changes. In rural areas across the world, migration is a vital livelihood strategy for diversifying risk, bringing in additional income, transferring knowledge and technology through remittances, creating social networks across regions, and providing better livelihood opportunities in the face of the slow-onset impacts of climate change.

Another key reason for shifting the discourse away from migration as a last resort is because governments should not encourage people to remain in deteriorating environments where their health may be affected by slow-onset climate consequences such as saltwater intrusion in drinking water and the increase of air- and water-borne diseases in warming environments. While climate migration should be reduced and managed where possible, policy planning aimed at keeping people in their homes when it no longer may be safe is not a long-term or a sustainable solution. Therefore, a shift in the discourse from “migration as last resort” to “migration as opportunity” could be an effective policy strategy that is more reflective of ground realities.

The World Bank reports that about 50 million people will be displaced annually due to climate change by 2030 in South Asia, with 40 percent of the rural population migrating to urban centres in the next 13 years. Why is South Asia going to be hit harder by climate migration?

Due to a combination of geography, climate, weak infrastructure, and poor public policy, South Asia is one of the regions that is being hit hardest by climate change. Countries like Bangladesh lie in low-lying deltas where rivers are prone to flooding, Sri Lanka and India have densely populated coastal cities affected by rising sea levels, and land-locked Nepal and Afghanistan are witnessing more frequent droughts due to rising temperatures. It is estimated that 750 million people in the region are affected by climate-related events each year – this is nearly half the region’s population.

These geographic specificities coupled with weak infrastructure and public policy makes South Asia more susceptible to climate migration. The economic and development needs of these countries are often understandably prioritised over long-term climate mitigation, and geopolitical and historic tensions in the region make a coordinated regional approach to tackling climate change challenging.

What should preparation for climate migration in South Asia look like?

Preparation for climate migration in South Asia should consist of a combination of both mitigation and adaptation strategies. Mitigation could include reducing carbon emissions and investing more development aid into disaster risk reduction measures. On the other hand, some in-situ adaptation strategies aimed at minimising climate migration include making coastal cities resilient to flooding, building roads that can withstand higher temperatures, and finding salinity-resistant crops are some examples. Other adaptation strategies see migration as inevitable, creating the frameworks for climate mobility to be safe and orderly. South Asia must follow in the footsteps of countries such as Fiji and Vanuatu and develop a climate mobility plan to tackle these challenges.

What are some specific things governments and civil society can do to prepare?

One way in which South Asian governments can prepare for climate migration is to identify in-migration and out-migration hotspots. In-migration hotspots are regions that are less susceptible to the impacts of climate change and that have more diverse livelihood opportunities, like southern Indian highlands around Bangalore and Chennai and parts of the Ganga River Basin in western Bangladesh. Here, governments should work towards developing secondary cities in peri-urban areas, creating employment opportunities and infrastructure to attract migrants and avoid overcrowding within slums in major cities like Dhaka. The town of Mongla in Bangladesh is a great example of this adaptation strategy. In out-migration areas like the deltaic regions of the Sundarbans, coastal towns and cities like Mumbai, and the northern Indo-Gangetic plains between Delhi and Lahore, governments should provide information and financial literacy programmes to communities for people to make informed adaptation decisions.

Governments could also create schemes to develop professional skills beyond climate-affected sectors like agriculture. Additionally, a climate adaptation strategy that state governments could undertake is to formalise seasonal or cyclical labour migration for the inclusion of climate migrants in social protection schemes. This would be highly effective as many climate migrants move to urban centres in specific periods, such as the dry season.

Finally, civil society has an important role to play in adapting to climate migration as well. Migration NGO’s and environmental NGOs should not be siloed but rather, should work together on education and awareness programmes on the interlinkages between climate change and displacement. 

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