Last month, the pictures of Rohingya Muslims struggling at sea were some of the most tragic and unsettling images to hit the world. With their bodies wasting away and despair in their eyes, the "boat people" as they have come to be called, wait for rescue from their arduous ordeal of forced migration from Bangladesh and Myanmar. While the concerned governments and the UN are busy deliberating their repatriation and refugee status, a new type of migrant, induced by climate change, may be on the rise.
Climate migrants a reality
Bangladesh has been declared as the one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in South Asia along with India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. In a speech last year, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, quoting from a report by Asia Development Bank, stated that roughly 30 million Bangladeshis will be at risk of becoming climate migrants by 2050. The Maldives is already seeking a new homeland due to climate change.
"[R]oughly 30 million Bangladeshis will be at risk of becoming climate migrants by 2050. The Maldives is already seeking a new homeland due to climate change."
The same ADB report also projects that roughly 37 million people from India, 22 million from China and 21 million from Indonesia will be at risk from the sea level rise by 2050. These populations are more likely to migrate within national borders or in some cases, cross international borders to escape the consequences of climate change. The rising temperatures are likely to have an adverse effect on the agriculture potential and will result in extreme weather conditions and destruction of low lying coastal areas. These drastic environmental changes will severely hamper the livelihoods of people around the world, especially poor and marginalised populations.
While a collective figure of the number of climate migrants globally remains heavily disputed, the world's first climate change refugees were granted residency in New Zealand last year under "exceptional humanitarian grounds" of the country's legislation. A 2009 report by UNHCR on the displacement and migration patterns in Africa stated has the number of recorded natural disasters has doubled from approximately 200 to over 400 per year over the past two decades. The report also states that in Africa, the majority of the disasters are climate-related.
Mediterranean nations are already witnessing a large influx of African migrants who are fleeing their countries from natural disasters and conflict. Record levels of people displaced by conflict in the Horn of Africa and other regions of sub-Saharan Africa are trying to reach Europe every day. Last year, a study tied the risk of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa to climate change.
Legal challenges for recognition
In the backdrop of the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, climate change is expected to expose millions to large-scale displacement and forced migration. There is a growing consensus that climate migrants should be considered within the framework of international laws. The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990 noted climate change might have a significant impact on human migration.
"Mediterranean nations are already witnessing a large influx of African migrants who are fleeing their countries from natural disasters and conflict... Last year, a study tied the risk of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa to climate change."
Currently, the terminology for climate change induced migrants extends to ecological and environmental refugees, climate refugees, climate change migrants, etc. However, NGOs and CSOs feel that considering the legal concern on the limitation of term "refugee'", some international organizations are trying to refer to such migrants as "environmentally displaced persons". But grouping climate change migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the same category may undermine the circumstances in which these migrants differ from IDPs. Also, climate migrants should have the opportunity to relocate to other countries under laws specifically recognising their right to free movement and dignity to life.
Policymakers across the world are paying very little attention to the issue of climate migrants and countries like India are viewing migration from Bangladesh strictly from the security prism. A report by the European Parliament in 2012 suggested that there are several gaps in legal protection for people who migrate or are displaced by environmental change. The scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention could be extended, and adding a new protocol under the UNFCCC that defines and protects people displaced by climate change can also be considered.
In a 2009 report titled, "No Place like Home", the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) advocates that a new legal instrument, either a protocol under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or a stand-alone convention has to be worked out.
The way forward
Even as the legal challenges are being ironed out around the recognition of climate migrants, it is important to acknowledge that mitigation and adaptation are keys to a climate resilient future. The same report from ESJ also concludes that the international community must take responsibility for mitigating climate change as there is a strongly established link between global human activity and greenhouse gas emissions.
The planned resettlement of climate migrants will require considerable financial support from developed nations. World leaders should work on a new legally binding agreement that addresses climate migrants and their right to recognition under international law.
It is important that historical GHG emissions are taken into consideration while formulating legal protocols around climate migrants and the countries with the highest per capita emission levels should pledge their financial support for the cause at the earliest. Or it may be too late.