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Climate migrants pushed to the brink

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South Asia is unprepared to protect climate migrants, even as it battles the COVID-19 crisis

Executive Summary

The world is facing an unprecedented climate emergency. Climate change is impacting the world’s poor adversely, destroying livelihoods and rendering them homeless. People are being displaced and are being forced to move out of their homes. This is the situation when average temperatures have already increased by 1.1°C in 2019, compared to preindustrial levels. Under a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures are expected to continue to increase, crossing the 2°C threshold. The impacts will further exacerbate issues people are facing. This raises the following questions:

  • What happens to climate migrants then?

  • What kinds of social protection are they assured of?

  • Do marginalised communities get support in reducing their vulnerability to climate risks?

  • Do climate migrants and those who are displaced get basic services such as education, food, shelter and security at destination sites?

  • Do women, in particular, have access to quality healthcare and sanitation during disasters?

  • Do affected communities get support to recover from climate impacts?

This policy brief delves into some of these aspects and presents the initial findings of research on climate change-induced migration internally in three countries in South Asia — Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The study was part of the South Asia Migration and Climate (SAMAC) project, funded by the European Union through the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) managed project — Improving Migration Management in the Silk Routes Countries — in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, implemented by ActionAid, in collaboration with Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), and its partners.

The study finds that people’s livelihoods in South Asia are being devastated by intense flooding, chronic drought, sea-level rise and changing weather patterns. As local coping mechanisms fail, people are forced to migrate to survive and make an alternative living to feed their families. Governments are unprepared to deal with the issue as they have not yet recognised how climate impacts are affecting internal migration trends. As a result, they have not developed appropriate policies to avert, minimise and address the issue.

People’s voices brought out through participatory research — backed by policy analysis — offer the following demands and recommendations:

Role of National Governments: National governments must recognise the growing problem of climate-induced migration, invest in building resilience and protect migrants through targeted policy interventions at both source and destination sites. To uphold the rights and dignity of affected communities, governments must ensure basic services and social protection to vulnerable communities, particularly to women, whose care work increases due to such migration.

Regional Cooperation: There are more commonalities among the three countries than there are differences. This needs political recognition. Climate-induced migration must be a part of forums like South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Budapest Process.* Regional cooperation entails common policies, codes and responses, along with the sharing of information and learning from each other. The rights of people who are forced to migrate across national borders must be legally protected.

International Cooperation: South Asian governments must receive financial and capacity building support. Multilateral institutions, such as Taskforce for Displacement, Global Forum on Migration and Development, and UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, must rigorously work to protect and strengthen the rights of climate-induced migrants.

Gaps and Research Needs: There are gaps in definitions and conceptual understanding of climate-induced migration. Further research, including academic analysis, is required to establish links between climate change and migration, and its impact on the most vulnerable. There is a strong case to be made for policies on how climate change is affecting the poorest and impacting existing migration trends due to lack of access to natural resources such as land, water and forests.

Role of Other Stakeholders: UN agencies, international organisations, labour unions and civil society organisations have a key role to play in identifying gaps and advocating on all aspects of climateinduced migration, including rights- and gender-based approaches. They must invest in raising awareness and building capacity of government authorities, institutions and other stakeholders. The media also need to be encouraged to report more widely and consistently on the issue of climate migrants.