“If we get climate change wrong, there is a very real danger that we shall see levels of mass immigration as yet unparalleled,” said Chris Bryant, Labour leader and former Shadow Minister, in his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Apparently, this is not something that is going to happen in the distant future. According to the UNHCR, starting from 2009, an estimated one person every second has been displaced because of climate or weather-related disaster.
Droughts in Somalia (2011-12, 2016-17), floods in Pakistan (2010-12), submerging islands in the Maldives, and rising sea levels in the Bangladesh coast have left a large number of people traumatised, without shelter, clean water, or any other basic supplies. According to IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), an average of 22.5 million people are being displaced every year since 2008 because of these climate-related problems.
But it’s still not a major issue in India, or is it? According to the World Bank, South Asia is a hotspot for the migration of people from disaster-affected or degraded areas to other national and international regions. For instance, as Priya Deshingkar pointed out in her research paper in 2003, an estimated 3,00,000 labourers migrate from drought-prone Bolangir district in Orissa every year (Priya Deshingkar, 2003).
Submerging islands of Sundarbans have displaced many people as well. According to NATCOM, a one-metre sea level rise will displace approximately 7.1 million people in India and about 5,764 sq. km of land area will be lost, along with 4,200 km of road.
“As of today, 76 lakh people are at risk of storm surge and sea level rise,” said Sushmita Dasgupta, Lead Environmental Economist, World Bank. Migrants from neighbouring countries is a possibility as well, and that may scale at hundreds of thousands of refugees in a few decades. According to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), about 120 million people could be left homeless by 2100 in both India and Bangladesh.
While this may seem a distant possibility, the fact is, 20 million Bangladeshis are migrating to India every year. Inaction and not recognising the current state may lead to more problems as migrants would end up in Indian cities which, for now, are themselves facing resource scarcity. Submerging islands of the Maldives will also drive hundreds of thousands of migrants to India from the disappearing nation. As most parts of the island nation are just 1.5 metres above the sea level, even a small rise in the sea level will turn thousands of inhabitants into climate refugees.
Drought, desertification, sea level rise, water scarcity and low food productivity, and melting glaciers are making people abandon their homes and go to other states and countries. Most of the time, they crowd the urban areas in the hope of better survival which creates a major issue in healthcare, food and resource scarcity in cities which, of course, are not ready to handle such an influx of people. Climate change may also increase the number of traditional refugees and increase their struggle for resources —water, food, grazing lands, which can trigger conflict.
The UNHCR is apparently not equipped to deal with the scale of the looming climate migration crisis. At present, the UNHCR deals with only 10 million refugees. And although many studies are arguing for the recognition and protection of climate refugees, terms such as environmental refugees and climate refugees have no legal basis in international refugee laws. But as the situation becomes more and more realistic, the need to amend refugee laws has grown substantially.
But UN is hesitant to recognize the issue because of a paucity of funds. Recently, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had launched a ‘Green Climate Fund’ to address all problems related to climate change, including the refugee crisis. The plan was to have rich countries contribute $100 billion a year by 2020, but only $10.2 billion has been promised till now.