Climate migration has been on the rise globally. During 2010-11, Asia and the Pacific saw more than 42 million people displaced by extreme weather events. In India alone, approximately 1.5 million people are classified as internally displaced every year, many for reasons associated with climate change. This transition bears costs for those who move, often to urban areas, and equally for those who are left behind. What can governments do to facilitate this transition?
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5) notes, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones, rising sea levels, heavy rainfall, landslides and floods often strike more than one district or country in the region.
We are witnessing the advent of this in India and South Asia. Most climate migrants, as with other migratory patterns, tend to be men, who are moving from rural to urban areas. Beyond displacement, and loss of infrastructure, a key reason for migration is loss of livelihood. As chronicled in an Action Aid report, a 17 year old girl from Odisha accounts “(Due to drought in 2016), I went to Kerala for the first time. I would not have migrated if we had not faced crop possess. Like me there are many youths who are choosing migrations as an alternative option to survive”.
Yet, life is not easy once climate migrants arrive to cities. As a paper by the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) finds, once in the new city, migrants face another set of infrastructure, health, education, security and financial inclusion challenges. With less than 70.6% of urban households covered by individual connections of water supply and over 17% of urban population living in slums, life for climate migrants is tough. Moreover, the poorest people in cities, are most likely victims of urban climate and related events. For instance, in August 2017, the day that Mumbai received 331.4 mm rainfall, the highest in a decade, the migrant labor population living in squatter communities was one of the worst affected. This is corroborated by an independent consultant on climate change and environment, writing in DowntoEarth, who finds, “Immigrant workers in urban contexts are considered one of the most vulnerable social groups to climate change risks, specifically to livelihood uncertainties such as the loss of livelihood opportunities, resources and assets”.
There are also numerous socio-political costs of migration. Migration of young women, as found in the case of Bangladeshi and Nepali girls seeking work in India can become exploitative, many of them often facing abuse. Moreover, recent political tensions and growing violence against ethnic minorities, particularly resentment towards Bangladeshi immigration in Assam, and negative rhetoric, has made it harder for climate migrants to receive assistance.
There is equally a hidden cost for those who are left behind. For example, a 2015 UN Women study on the impacts of climate-induced migration on women in Bangladesh found that ‘in most cases, migrated male family members were unable or simply unwilling to send money back to their households, leaving the women to find other means of survival during these periods of migration”.
Given the interconnected nature of climate migration, a policy response at the regional scale is needed. The SAARC has a climate action plan, yet the calling off of meetings and low inter-country solidarity means those on the ground are impacted the most. Another form of international level intervention is recognising the status of climate migrants. Currently, displaced climate migrants do not have the same legal protections as those displaced for other reasons, both in their own, or new country. As Jamuna Sheshadri, associate professor of sociology and Delhi University said, “Everyone knows that climate change is displacing people, but no government is willing to acknowledge this for fear of having to recognise these people as refugees and be responsible for their welfare”.
Another gap is monitoring climate migration flows at the international and national scale. For instance, the impacts of climate-induced migration on women are not being monitored by government agencies in South Asia. All these recommendations were outcomes of Platform on Disaster Displacement (follow up to the Nansen Initiative) which encouraged: Collecting data and enhancing knowledge; enhancing the use of humanitarian protection measures and strengthening management of disaster displacement risk in the country of origin.
Finally, while on a macro level, better adaptation can be addressed through a National Adaptation Plan or greater financing from the Green Climate Fund. On the ground, governments need to equip the most vulnerable, such as women left behind in natural disaster-prone areas. Action Aid suggests “The empowerment and training of women in disaster preparedness strategies, including early warning systems, search and rescue, emergency response and relief distribution may be key to their own and their communities’ survival in the face of disasters”. Additionally, safer migration channels for climate migrants should be established.
There are no simple answers. Climate-induced migration is a growing phenomenon and approaching it through multiple lenses is required to design appropriate policy.