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How Climate Change Is Driving Mass Human Displacement

Climate change is driving mass human displacement and forcing the need to establish climate governance policies that go beyond the traditional perception of who is a 'refugee'

How Climate Change Is Driving Mass Human Displacement
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Assam resident Seher Ali’s life is a paradox. Three decades ago, Ali’s family lost their ancestral home in Charagaon due to a rise in water levels. A river now flows where Ali’s house had once stood. “Our village went underwater. Nothing of the house remains but that is still our official address in many documents,” Ali states.

After 30 years, he still has nothing more than an address without a home. He now lives in a temporary shanty on the outskirts of Niz Baghbar, four kilometres north-east of Baghbar hillock in the (currently flooded) Barpeta district of Assam. This year, the flood situation in Barpeta has left 43,000 people affected. Ali fears that he and his family might once again end up in relief camps where they have spent much of their lives. “We have become like refugees in our own land,” he says. But as per international refugee law, Ali does not qualify to be called a refugee, neither does he get disaster relief-rehabilitation at home.

Ali is one of the lakhs of people in India who have lost their homes and livelihoods to climate-related phenomena in the past few decades. In 2021 alone, nearly 50 lakh people were internally displaced in India due to climate change and disasters, as per the annual Global Trends Report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Lost in Terminology

The scope of the global refugee crisis has more than doubled in the past few decades. However, much of the data on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) does not include “climate refugees” or “environmental refugees”. This is because traditionally, a refugee is associated with persecution based on caste, class, race, gender, ethnicity and/or political allegiance. Refugees also need to technically cross an international boundary and enter a destination nation to be identified as refugees.

Refugee Status Determination (RSD) is a vital part of helping refugees realise their rights under international law. However, climate refugees are not recognised as refugees under international law and there is no specific template for the protection and rehabilitation of climate-displaced persons. This means that climate refugees and climate displaced remain outside of the purview of rights guaranteed to refugees. 

So, who is a climate refugee? The Global Governance on Climate Change defines climate refugees (or environmental refugees) as people who are compelled to leave their habitats (immediately or in near future), because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate changes—sea-level rise, extreme weather events, drought, and water scarcity.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there could be as many as 200 million environmental refugees by 2050. 

In the absence of official refugee status, those who get displaced or lose their livelihoods due to environmental phenomena are often left to fend for themselves.

In the absence of official refugee status, those who get displaced or lose their livelihoods due to environmental phenomena are often left to fend for themselves. “It isn’t easy to rebuild once you have lost everything. But I tried,” Ali recalls.  About 15 years ago after moving from relief camp to temporary housing, Ali arrived in Baghbar with the hopes of rebuilding his life. He managed to purchase 400 bighas of land. But “home” would remain elusive. 

What he didn’t know was that the land had been allotted for animal husbandry. Due to delay in setting up of the proposed pig farm on the area, touts started selling plots to erosion-affected/displaced people like Ali. Last winter in December, the government in Assam evicted Ali along with 48 other families from those plots.  He has lost his father and elder brother in past few years. Having lost the little he had managed to rebuild, Ali, who had no papers for the property, moved to a tent on the village’s periphery, reduced once again to an outsider, living on the outskirt.

International Institute for Environment and Development climate researcher Ritu Bharadwaj, who has been studying the impact of environmental change on communities in India, states that international climate refugees have barely any rights in the destination country due to the lack of international accordance, meaning that upon entering destination country, they are likely to be dubbed “illegal settlers”.

During a recent study she and her team conducted in the environmentally-vulnerable Kendrapara area of Odisha, they found several climate refugees from Nepal and Bangladesh. While other climate displaced in India may avail advantages like MNREGA or disaster relief, climate refugees get nothing. “Just because they don’t have a legal climate refugee status, they are illegal immigrants,” she states. 

Forced into Statelessness

Climate displacement can also render people “illegal” within their home country.  The issue of “illegality” emerges strongly in Assam where the ‘National Register of Citizens’ exercise threatens to disenfranchise millions based on their ability or inability to prove their citizenship. Thus, adverse climate impact can lead to not just homelessness but also induce what Assam-based activist Faruk Khan calls “statelessness”.

The D-voter electoral category in Assam includes thousands of people whom the government disenfranchises on the account of their inability to show proper citizenship credentials. D voters do not have voting rights and are essentially deemed as foreigners. In 2021, 1.08 lakh persons were declared D-voters in Assam. Khan claims that among them, thousands of these D-voters are actually climate displaced persons. 

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“In Assam, security forces and state authorities keep tabs on migrants. Whenever a person comes to a new area, they are marked. And many times, they are put under the “foreigner” category based on biased suspicions,” Khan, who runs a non-profit organisation called ‘D-Voter Forum’, states, adding that once a person loses their own home, it becomes very hard for them to establish their identity anywhere else. They forever remain “outsiders”, seen and perceived with suspicion. “Such suspicions, of course, are allayed by communal and xenophobic narratives,” Khan adds.

The sections that suffer the most when it comes to climate-displacement or climate-induced distress migration are women and children. 
 In the Sundarbans delta complex shared between West Bengal and Bangladesh, for instance, village after village in Sagar Island and Ghoramara Island have become submerged due to rising sea level and rapid land erosion. About 75 per cent of Ghoramara Island now submerged and soon, the whole island is expected to disappear. Many like Chitto Das, who belonged to Khasimara village, have had to move to inland villages like Goshaba, in another part of the Sundarbans. 

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The sections that suffer the most when it comes to climate-displacement or climate-induced distress migration are women and children.

In most of these climate migrant households, women have been left alone to deal with recurrent cyclones and floods, and tend to inundated soil while their husbands migrate to urban centres like Kolkata for work. As per the Rural Household Survey, over 25 per cent of the principal earners (majority male) of individual families have migrated out of their homes in the islands and temporarily searching for work or working elsewhere.

Manju Sarkar, who runs an SHG in Goshaba, states that several women who migrated to Goshaba from the submerged villages like Khasimara, Lohachara, Baishnabpara, now live on rented plots or shanties in other villages and try to raise the family on meagre incomes while the husbands work in faraway cities as labourers. Even those who live in further inland areas like Goshaba have been affected by environmental change as recurrent flood and cyclone water has left their farms salinated and unfit for farming. 

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Another dire impact is the incidence of child trafficking, child marriages, debt bondage and other social ills in families affected by environmental change. Rafiqul Islam, who works extensively to curb child marriages in Assam, states that in most cases of trafficking in environmentally vulnerable zones, families often have no means to take care of the children and even voluntarily allow trafficking of one child to feed the rest. 

“The one school in Charagaon is in shambles. There are about 3,500 people living in the area and not a single school above Class 5. There are no employment opportunities for youth so even if a trafficked child is managed to be rescued, they are likely to be pushed back into trafficking or into crime,” Islam states, adding that the state as well as central government has remained more or less apathetic to the needs of children affected by climate change. 

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Invisibility of Distress Migration

Two kinds of events cause climate induced movement.  Rapid onset events typically include flash floods, cyclones, hurricanes, flash droughts, or even heat waves now in India. These events have high visibility and empirical data is more easily available to measure ‘Loss and Damage’, which is useful in estimating the economic and property losses. Slow onset events, on the other hand, typically include sea level rise, salination, desertification and prolonged drought. These events produce more long-term impact including loss of home or livelihood. These events also drive deeper distress migration, which refers to the voluntary movement of people in anticipation of impending environmental adversity or ongoing crisis. “As opposed to opportunistic migration, distress migration often leads to migrants facing issues with renegotiation of space. This can be in the form of discrimination faced in urban spaces, of the loss of identity and cultural belongingness,” states Bhardwaj.

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Towards Climate Governance 

Last year, Pradyut Bordoloi, Congress parliamentarian from Assam’s Nagaon, introduced the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill as a private member’s bill. The Bill outlines a framework for the protection and rehabilitation of climate-displaced persons by providing for a dedicated climate fund and for periodic surveys in climate change-prone areas to assess the scale of the displacement. The bill has been dubbed ‘doomed to not pass’ by media and sceptics and does not inspire much hope among climate change activists or those working with climate migration. But it’s a starting point. 

Professor Parthankar Choudhary, Dean and former Head of the Department of Ecology & Environmental Science at the E. P. Odum School of Environmental Sciences at Assam University, also highlights that India’s Disaster Management Act 2005 has been more or less effective in mitigating the fallout of natural disaster. 

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“Global temperature rise, excessive precipitation, drought, and the like can broadly be categorised under climatic hazards. Thus its effects inter alia fall under the category of Disaster, and ideally are dealt with under the Disaster Management Act, 2005,” he states. But while the DM Act might help victims of short-onset events, the act fails to provide much relief to victims of long-offset events. Additionally, social stratification and marginalisation often compound the issues and deny people even the rights and safeguards that the government provides. 

Climate governance is likely to become top of the agenda of governments globally in coming years due to the inevitability of climate change necessitating extensive systems to deal with it. The world has already realised it. Even the most conservative estimates of annual climate-induced displacement and impact speak for themselves. The question is, how long can governments remain in denial?

(This appeared in the print as 'Addresses Without Homes')

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