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Climate Change and Migrants: How do they connect?

Climate migrants - an explanation of the expression

Climate migrants, or climate refugees simply refer to people who have had to flee their original homes due to severe factors present in the environment that make their homes an unlivable place to stay in. These factors in the environment are called climate stressors, and they are the direct consequences that climate change has on natural patterns all over the world. For example, increases in sea level, more frequent floods, and droughts that last for a longer period of time are all examples of climate stressors.

As these climate stressors get more severe, the people affected most have no other option but to move elsewhere, which often leaves them more often than not, to embark on a dangerous path to find a suitable place to live.

Who are the people most likely to be climate migrants?

Climate migrants are most likely people who live in countries with low adaptive capacities, vulnerable geographic structures, and fragile ecosystems. It is often the poorest and most vulnerable who do not have the capacity to leave their homes. The majority of climate migrants likely come from rural, remote areas, whose regions are highly dependent on the climate in order to sustain activities such as agriculture and fishing.

Additionally, most rural areas do not have the proper infrastructure to withstand harsh weather, all the more prompting more people in rural areas most affected by poverty to migrate. Despite the huge extent of the issue, there are no current reliable estimates of the number of people who are climate migrants, and there are three main reasons behind this. First, it’s difficult to establish and single out the reasons for migration, as the reasons for migration are often varied, complex, and most commonly intersect with one another.

Furthermore, places that experience the most severe climate stressors are also affected by conflict situations, political instability, low levels of economic development and human rights abuses. Due to all these different factors, it is difficult to determine a link This makes it difficult to establish a direct causal link between the movement of people and the environment.

Finally, climate migrants often move around within their country (e.g. rural to urban settings) and not across international borders, and this movement is most likely not officially documented. Because of all that, we might never know just how many climate migrants there are in the world.

What’s worse is that under the international refugee law, climate migrants are not legally considered refugees. The definition of a ‘refugee’ from a legal viewpoint has a very specific meaning that revolves around a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Art. 1, 1951 Refugee Convention).

Because of this definition set by the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate refugees may not even be seen as refugees, because the environment is not seen as an entity that is directly persecuting these people. In simpler terms, people leaving their homes solely due to environmental or climate stressors cannot legally qualify as refugees.

Case study: Bangladesh

According to the Global Climate Risk Index of 2017, Bangladesh is the 6th most vulnerable country to climate change, and the country most affected by extreme weather. One of the causes of this drastic impact on Bangladesh can be attributed to saline intrusion which refers to a heavy influx of seawater into regions that aren’t normally exposed to high salinity levels. Examples of this occurring could be the inflow of seawater into freshwater, or into a freshwater wetland or aquifer.

In the case of Bangladesh, a country spanning 147,570 km2, with the largest delta in the world, saline intrusion especially targets the interior coast of the Bangladesh delta, otherwise known as the Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta. This delta is home to a third of the nation’s population, meaning that many activities such as agriculture or fishing occur near the delta. However, the livelihood of the inhabitants of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta have been exposed to a series of natural misfortunes causing stringent setbacks.

For example, tropical cyclones are one of the largest causes behind large-scale salinity intrusion. In the context of climate change, both the intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones are actually exacerbated by climate change.

Salinity poses challenges in agriculture and overall flood security, which in turn poses a threat to the livelihood of marginalised groups such as women, children, the elderly but towards the entire population at large. In 1973, 83.3 million hectares of land were affected by salinity, and that number promptly skyrocketed to 102 million in 2000. Moving forward to the year 2009, this number has yet again increased, going up to 105.6 million hectares.

For that reason, regular crop production is crippled due to many causes such as inadequate irrigation water sources, a scarcity of salt tolerant crop varieties, an increase in climate change related natural disasters, as well as the lack of sufficient technology to mitigate the salinity problem. Hence, saline intrusion further results not only in the destruction of crop yield, but also causes a loss of total crop production on soil that contains elevated concentrations of salt. The saline-prone coastal region had a drastic yield loss, approximately on an average of 20-40% in major crops (e.g. grains, potato, oil, seeds, vegetables, etc.)

What all this amounts to is the overall food insecurity and worsened health of the inhabitants of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, which are all factors induced by climate change that have pushed the residents of the Ganges Delta to move. Further impacts include shortages of clean and fresh water to drink, as well as water of a suitable salinity that can be used to irrigate crops. Changes in river salinity and the availability of freshwater will also influence the productivity of fisheries, a sector that is quite significant to the local economy of Bangladesh.

Additionally, households in regions with high salinity have significantly higher migration rates for male adults of working-age, higher dependency ratios, and higher poverty incidences compared to households in non-threatened areas. The poverty impact of salinity intrusion is striking: the economic status of coastal households in the bottom 20% rises more than 6 fold, from 8% to 56%.

Over the last decade, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis were displaced on average each year by natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This number tends to fluctuate drastically, with spikes in years with cyclones, such as the cyclone Aila in the year 2009 that displaced millions and killed more than 200. All in all the number of inhabitants in Bangladesh displaced by the range of impacts of climate change could reach a number of 13.3 million by the year 2050, which makes Bangladesh the number-one driver of internal migration.

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