“CLIMATE REFUGEES”– PARIAHS AMONG THE DISPLACED MILIEU

German artist Hermann Josef Hack's World Climate Refugee Camp in Hannover displaying 600 small climate refugee tents.

Article by Medha Patil

INTRODUCTION

“The ocean is torturing us,” said Pushpo Rani Das, 28, a mother of three who has had to move her home four times to escape storm surges around Ali Akbar Dial, a collection of disappearing villages on the southern tip of the island in Bangladesh. “We can’t stop it. Water enters my house in every high tide, especially in the rainy season.” Rani fears that soon her family will have to leave the island altogether. Pushpo Rani Das is one of Bangladesh’s millions of coastal people who are being uprooted because of rising sea levels.

Bangladesh has emerged as one of the most vulnerable of nations, severely affected by the effects of climate change and global warming. What renders Bangladesh so vulnerable are its singular features: geographical location, geo-morphological conditions, low elevation from the sea, density of population, poverty and remarkable dependence on nature, as well as its resources and services.

Its low elevation, high population density and inadequate infrastructure all put the nation in harm’s way, along with an economy that is heavily dependent on farming. And the nation’s natural vulnerability to extreme climate has extracted an unforeseen effect: forcing the general population to resort to migration as an adapting system.  And now, as climactic conditions worsen, more and more Bangladeshis are being driven from their homes and land, exposing them to recurring and extreme risks. Sea level rise, storms, cyclones, droughts, erosion, landslides, flooding and salinisation are already displacing large numbers of people.

About 28% of the population of Bangladesh lives on the coast, where the primary driver of displacement is tidal flooding caused by sea level rise. It is conjectured that with even one-meter rise in ocean level in the low-lying coastal districts of Bangladesh will render the country substantially more helpless, driving it to the brink of unprecedented catastrophes.

REFLECTIONS OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS ON HUMAN RIGHTS

Bangladesh tends to suffer the outcomes of climate change not only because of its geographical characteristics but also owing to its limited resources to adapt to such huge changes. Across coastal Bangladesh, sea-level rise, exacerbated by the conversion of mangrove forest for agricultural production and shrimp farming, has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of mangroves. Consider the statistics. The number of tigers in the Sundarbans has plummeted drastically. So much so, the World Wildlife Fund predicts that the tiger may become extinct. The burgeoning loss of mangrove habitat, especially in the Sundarbans, also means that Bangladesh will lose one of its last natural defenses against climate change-induced super-cyclones. Farming, the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy, is severely affected and crops harmed by rising salinity are doubly in danger from the resultant soil debasement. Numerous regions have just endured extensive yield losses and critical drop. The nation’s climate refugees, mainly farmers and fishermen, are moving into the slums of the country’s two biggest urban cities, Dhaka and Chittagong. As conditions deteriorate, the limits of these territories to take in more population are nearing the end. This sad reality offers restricted choices to those uprooted. These persistent inhabitable conditions compel the Bangladeshi people to move away from their homeland in search of a place where their basic human rights are protected. Bereft of the basic necessities of healthy living, and surrounded by extremely inhospitable conditions, Bangladeshis are forced to leave their native place, triggering massive displacement and surge in the refugee population. Thus, the devastating trajectory of climate change not only deprives them of their land but also their identity, culture and community intrinsically linked with the land.

What, however, is worse is that these victims of natural disasters also fail to find much relief at official levels. For, the grim reality is that these “climate refugees” do not find any legal recognition in the Refugee Convention of 1951, leaving them bereft of any legal protection or rights within the ambit of international law. The number of climate change refugees has been steadily increasing in many parts of the world. There is clear proof of this. Yet, the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in Paris in 2015 (Paris Agreement) paid next to no consideration to this developing human crisis. Instead, it focused to a great extent on carbon discharge decrease targets and ecological issues. The subsequent COP22/Marrakesh (Morocco 2016) and COP23 (Bonn, Germany 2017) conferences similarly ignored the issue. It was, however, the 2018 COP24 held in Katowice, Poland that made a noteworthy and unequivocal move to acknowledge the rights and needs of “climate displaced people” and offered assistance to the climate refugees.

At the same time, it is worth considering some bottlenecks in the way of solutions. For one, there is clearly absence of enough information at the community level for better understanding of the relocation dangers people face and choices accessible to them with the goal of creation of some effective solutions. The UN Global Compact may help people evacuated by climate impacts. These strategies, however, are in their earliest stages and execution might be too complex to even think about resolving the scale and extent of the issues people and communities are facing on the ground in Bangladesh today. As previously noted, activities and responsibilities along these lines at the worldwide dimension must be coordinated and upheld by national and local level responses in lessening displacement and migration with regards to environmental change.

It is anticipated that, by 2020, from 500 to 750 million people will be affected by water stress caused by climate change around the world. Sea levels will rise 2% in the year 2020, 4% by 2050 and 17.5% by 2100. It will severely affect agriculture, hamper food security, create health hazards, and aggravate poverty.

CONCLUSION

In the light of the existing fact, we can infer that there arises a need to juxtapose environmental law with human rights law and form a unified legislation to address the specific issues prevalent in such states and provide remedies for it. When any environmental problem arises, human rights of the people in consequence are threatened to a large extent. Thus these two branches of law are inter-linked with each other. From the devastation it causes, it is clear that many legal remedies can be considered to provide different kinds of relief to victims. For instance, there should be a “right to reparation” necessarily provided in the legislation where the affected countries would be entitled to seek assistance in addition to monetary relief to help them revert back to their normal conditions. Furthermore, the victims should be provided the opportunities of education, jobs and social security which would offset the effects of devastating environmental challenges. As an immediate measure, remedial action should be based on prioritisation of needs of the vulnerable communities.

In Bangladesh, a strong national adaptation plan is under execution, which includes methodologies of adaptation as the focal element to climate change. Uprooting and displacements connected to climactic vagaries are already occurring in Bangladesh. Therefore, movement, migration and resettlement must also be accepted as pivotal reactions to climate disasters, especially when planned preventive resettlements of populations are jeopardised by disasters.  Or else, the climate change refugees issue will stay camouflaged between the lines of the present national adaptation policy.

In light of the above mentioned suggestions, effective deterrence should be established to save the afflicted from their plight. Without the essential necessities of healthy living, these individuals will be compelled to leave their local place, triggering huge relocation and increment in the refugee population. Mankind’s common concern should be focused on maintaining a climate sustainable habitat for all the species on earth.