Sunday, March 20, 2011

Climate Refugees: The Bangladesh Case

Muhammad Abu Musa
3rd March 2011

Climate change is the single most important global issue there is, and
climate refugees are the human face
of the ongoing tragedy. Currently
(March 2011) 6,5 million people in
Bangladesh are climate refugees, held captive by rising tidal water levels in the coast, by riverbank erosion in the mainland and by  landslides in the hills. People have been forced to flee their
habitual place of residence; their homestead land eventually devoured into rivers or buried under landslides, houses destroyed and livelihood assets lost. While the Bangladesh Government is emphasizing on relocating these climate refugees in  foreign countries, ACR (Association for Climate Refugees) has started relocating them within the country borders with technical and financial assistance from  Displacement Solutions, an international NGO based in Australia. Other civil society groups  are also working for a legal and institutional framework for protecting and rehabilitating 'climate refugees' who are being displaced due to climate change. The need of the hour is a new type of relationship between the North and
the South to combat the climate change and  ensure rights and justice for the climate refugees.

The climate refugees issue has gained ground but greater challenges lie ahead. General predictions tell us that the number of climate refugees in Bangladesh would be 30 million by the year 2050 but ACR reports that the existing number of 6.5 million climate refugees would be raised to at a much higher level  than the general predictions. The Bangladesh Government’s stance on finding relocation opportunity to any foreign country can only gain ground if it can substantially  relocate the climate refugees within the country borders at first. The superficial activities of the civil society groups at the policy advocacy level need to be deeply anchored into the real situations  at the grassroots level. Success in finding a sustainable solutions to the climate displacement predominantly depends on transparency and accountability of the duty bearers as well as active participation of the victims communities at large.

Although the Bangladesh Government upholds the idea of find relocation of climate refugees in foreign countries, it has not yet outlined any policy regarding the mechanics for it. Without a clear policy in place, many concerned citizens of Bangladesh suspect that the most vulnerable -- poor and largely illiterate coastal residents -- will never be able to migrate to developed countries. Rather, many suspect, politically powerful and/or highly educated urban residents will take this opportunity to migrate to developed countries as climate refugees. Even if the government does develop a comprehensive policy on climate-induced migration,
many suspect that it will fail to implement  such policy because of widespread corruption within the government.

The international community seems to be reluctant to relocate climate refugees of developing countries in developed nations. There is also a great reluctance on the part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)  regarding revision of the definition of refugees to include climate refugees. A great deal of negotiations between the North and the South are yet to take place to find a win-win settlement of the issue for sustainable solutions to climate displacement globally.   The goodwill statement of the Canadian Lawmaker
is encouraging. "It would be quite possible and of course Canada is looking at the immigration of climate refugees of Bangladesh to Canada," Maria Minna, the visiting Canadian lawmaker from opposition Liberal Party told reporters after a meeting with State Minister for Environment and Forest Hasan Mahmud (The Daily Star: 6th  March 2010). The positive attitudes of IOM (International Organization for Migration) in respect to climate displacement solutions need to be further promoted and maintained globally.

The International Campaign on Climate Refugees' Rights (ICCR), an organization of social movement groups from Asia, Africa and Latin/Central America have joined hands together to demand the rights of millions of climate refugees. The ICCR is asserting and realising the rights and ensuring justice to the climate-induced displaced victims. Civil society groups from developing countries, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Senegal, Uganda and EL Salvador, are members of this association and its secretariat is based in Dhaka. Voices have been raised demanding a safeguard protocol to ensure political,
social, cultural and economic rights of the climate refugees be adopted by the international community. ICCR or similar organizations could play an important role at the policy advocacy level while ACR or similar organizations continue to resettle climate  refugees within the country and supplement Bangladesh Government’s initiatives for relocation of climate refugees into foreign countries.

Adverse effects of climate change and the human displacement, as the worst case scenario, is not something to take place in 2030 or 2050 – it is being experienced on the ground right now and it’s time to act now and be prepared for greater challenges ahead otherwise the nation states may have a sudden collapse.

[The author may be contacted via email]

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