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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 12 New Delhi March 9, 2019

Climate Refugees and Human Rights: Caught in the Tide of Time

Monday 11 March 2019


by Shubhra Seth and Govind Singh


The feeling of returning home gives a sense of settlement and belongingness to many people. But how does one feel when the home does not give a sense of belonging and it is just a mere cemented structure or a tin box that one returns to every day, for the simple reason that, what was once upon a time their home, today no longer welcomes them. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) live with this dilemma every day. Living in relief colonies or camps, their condition is similar to that of refugees as they are forced to leave their homes which results in severed ties with the community, families often get disintegrated, facing unemployment and limited or no access to land, housing, food and education. The 21st century is witnessing an imminent threat of climate-related migration which, in coming years, could evolve into a global crisis—displacing a large number of people from their homes and forcing them to flee.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentioned the “potential for population migration” due to increase in the number of areas affected by droughts and an increase in the intense tropical cyclones activities. (IPCC, 2007) In particular, it seems likely that a significant number of people will be displaced, either temporarily or permanently, from their homes as a consequence of global warming. (Stern, 2006) A preliminary analysis of arguably the first climate refugees of the world points to the fact that we need many more inclusive sets of concepts and tools to be able to understand the complexity of this phenomenon. (Farbotko et al., 2012) Although it is widely recognised that climate change will affect South Asia majorly, however there is not much literature on how this change shall trigger large-scale migration and displacement within the region.

An often quoted term that we come across in Environmental Sciences-related journals or texts is that of ‘Climate Refugees’. In most cases this term is holistically used to denote some form of movement or migration because of climate change. However, if we take this term in the realm of Social Science and away for a while from Environmental Science, then we may be able to see the density and the impending disaster that states/ countries are all awaiting in the years to come. All for the simple lack of a defined category, leading to recognition by the concerned governments which shall then translate into well-worked policy initiatives when faced with such a climatic crisis. This paper, in three sections, is an attempt to under-stand the meaning and types of displacement due to environmental reasons, understanding few cases of displacement within South Asia and in conclusion shall reflect on the need for a recognised state policy to combat the crisis of climate migration/ refugees.

Climate Displaced vs Climate Refugees

Most literature in Environmental Sciences sweepingly refers to the term migration due to changing climatic conditions to indicate territorial shift of the affected population. However, all movement is not migration and it requires a nuanced understanding of the two varied terms which are often inter-changeably used in most writings. The Internally Displaced Persons are defined as: Persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of, armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disaster, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border. The visible and acknowledged mark of separation which differentiates an internally displaced person from a refugee is the internationally recognised state border. Faced with situations varying from armed conflicts, internal strife, continuous and systematic violation of human rights, those who flee and seek asylum in countries other than that of their origin are recognised as refugees and the ones who continue to stay within the border of their own countries seeking protection and support from their own government join the category of internally displaced persons.

Understanding Displacement

The Guiding Principles spell out the definition of situations leading to displacement. These are armed conflict, episodes of generalised violence, violations of human rights, or natural and man-made disasters. Displacement can be studied through different lens rather can be classified in different types with reference to the trigger-points or what causes displacement. Principle 6 of the given 30 Guiding Principles enumerates the following: (1) Every human being shall have the right to be protected against being arbitrarily displaced from his or her home or place of habitual residence. (2) The prohibition of arbitrary displacement includes displacement: (a) when it is based on policies of apartheid, “ethnic cleansing” or similar practices aimed at/ or resulting in altering the ethnic, religious or racial composition of the affected population; (b) in situations of armed conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand; (c) in cases of large-scale development projects, which are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests; (d) in cases of disasters, unless the safety and health of those affected requires their evacuation; and (e) when it is used as a collective punishment. (E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2)

Disaster-induced displacement, development-induced displacement and conflict-induced displacement are the three nodes as reflected in the above-mentioned Principle. These are mostly studied and discussed amongst the literature on the study of internal displacement as a concept. A brief outline of disaster-induced displacement shall elucidate the characteristic features enabling us to understand climate-related forced migrations better.

Disaster-induced Displacement or Climate Displacement

The United Nations has defined disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material, or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected society to cope using its own resources”. (UNDRO 1992) Disaster used to be mostly classified into two types, natural and man-made. Natural disasters were further studied under three sub-categories, namely: sudden impact, slow-onset and epidemic disasters. Man-made disasters included the categories of industrial/ technological disasters and complex emergencies. However, while the sub-categories remain, there is now considerable research indicating how disasters are actually man-made events that occur when man ceases to live in harmony with nature. (Cannon, 1994; Kapur, 2010) To elaborate on the sub-categories of disasters: a) sudden impact disasters include earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, tropical storms, volcanic eruptions and landslides. Floods are associated with sudden migration of large population while earthquakes take a heavy toll on human life and may cause overwhelming infrastructural damage; b) slow-onset disasters include droughts, famine, environmental degradation, deforestation or conversion of arable land to deserts. These disasters are a result of adverse weather conditions along with poor land use; c) epidemic disasters triggered by diseases like cholera, measles, respiratory infection, malaria and increasing cases of HIV in recent times though generally do not cause large scale displacement but threaten displaced populations who stay clustered in overcrowded and unsanitary condition following a major disaster; d) industrial/ technological disasters result from the society’s industrial and technological activities that lead to pollution, spillage of hazardous materials, explosions and fires. They may occur from poor planning and construction of facilities or from neglect of safety procedures; and e) complex emergencies are usually human-made with multiple contri-buting factors (which may include war and even natural disaster). Such emergencies are marked by large-scale displacement, food insecurity, human rights violations and elevated mortality. (Robinson 2003)

South Asia will be among the regions hardest hit by climate change. Higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, increasing cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, as well as floods in the region’s complex river systems will complicate existing development and poverty reduction initiatives. Coupled with high population density levels, these climate shifts have the potential to create complex environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges. India and Bangladesh, in particular, shall feel the impacts of climate change acutely. The consequences of climate change will change conditions and undermine livelihoods in many areas. And extreme events and deteriorating conditions are likely to force many to leave their homes temporarily or even permanently for another village, city, and region. Simultaneous to this movement is also the movement of people due to disasters, which may or may not be a consequence of climate change.

An example of internal displacement of people triggered due to climate and formalised due to non-climate related disasters has been witnessed in the Trinket Islands in Nicobar Islands after the tsunami disaster of 2004. Trinket in Nicobar Island lost 91 people when the climate disaster of tsunami struck the island but it lost its entire population to humanitarian aid because of an ill-planned rehabilitation policy. Trinket, 29 square kilometres in size, had a population of 432 people spread across four villages, named Hockook, Safed Balu, Tapiang and Trinket. The Nicobar archipelago is mostly a tribal reserve except for a few pockets. Here mostly the indigenous community lived independently with limited cross-cultural contact until the tsunami in December 2004 devastated the archipelago. The climatic disaster killed 91 people and the remaining survivors were shifted to the Vikas Nagar village on the adjacent Kamorta Island. (The Hindu, March 5, 2017) The native home of the survivors in Trinket was abandoned as they began to live in the “tsunami shelters” permanently. Today more than a decade after tsunami the natives await to return to Trinket as the new settlement in Kamorta Island is not suitable for coconut cultivation and lacks other sustainable opportunities. Soon after the tsunami the administration chose Kamorta as a cons-truction site over rebuilding the devastated Trinket due to logistical convenience. The permanent shelters and financial aid gave temporary relief to the survivors but did a lifelong damage as it left them with no avenues of cultivation, self-sustenance, harmonious coexistence and cultural contact. The inhabitants of Trinket neither find themselves at home in Kamorta nor can they return to their native place; hence they remain internally displaced even much after the tsunami has receded.

The North-East region of India has forever remained dynamic as is a symbol of cultural and environmental pride of India. North-East India is no one culture or people, but a consortium of many different tribal and non-tribal groups with different languages, cultural practices and belief systems. The rich cultural diversity of North-East India is now experiencing some shrinking due to much greater movement of people in the region than ever before. In addition, the influx of climate refugees into the North-East is yet another challenge that is complicating the problem of sustaining India’s seven sister States. The North-East region of India has been experiencing considerable socio-ethnic tensions since the last few decades. While some of the challenges for this could be increasing population and increasing development status of the people, a key trigger of these tensions is the movement of climate refugees from Bangladesh into India. (Narahari, 2012) Singh (2009) carried out an extensive study of illegal migration taking place in Nagaland (India) and has advocated that this being a serious problem, needs suitable policy intervention at the earliest. A detailed inquiry into the nature of this migration reveals that its origin is from climate- constrained Bangladesh and this large-scale movement of climate refugees into the North-East is damaging the culturally rich fabric of the region.

Climate Refugees 

The term refugee has a specific legal meaning in the context of Article lA of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. (Castles, 2002) Refugees are a distinct category of migrants in two respects: they must have moved owing to the “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion” and they must have crossed an international border. (Barnett et al., 2009) In international refugee law, environ-mental conditions do not constitute a basis for international protection. (Kibreab, 1997) Thus, categorising people who are migrating due to environmental factors or climate change as refugees is faced with problems. Refugees, according to international law, must cross the international border. But climate change may induce large-scale migration within the country, and restricting the definition to those who cross international borders may seriously understate the extent of the problem. Due to criticisms against the use of the word refugee, alternative concepts such as environmentally induced migrants (International Organisation of Migration, 2007) and forced environmental migrants (Renaud et al., 2007) have been put forward to describe people migrating due to environmental factors and climate change. Due to lack of a definition under international law for environ-mental refugees and climate refugees, no national or international institution is responsible for their protection. The international institutions charged with providing for refugees and the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are overstretched and unable to cope with the current stock of refugees. They are highly resistant to any further expansion of the mandate on refugees. (Brown, 2007) However, there has been some progress in persuading the international organisations to recognise the climate refugees. For example, Biermann and Boss (2007) demanded creation of a protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change on recognition, protection and resettle-ment of climate refugees. They have argued for continuing the use of the term climate refugees and adjusting the United Nations terminology by allowing for different types of refugees created due to reasons other than conflict and war.

Maldives, an island-nation in the Indian Ocean, is perhaps the country most threatened by the rise of the sea level. Maldives rises only 2.4 metres (8 feet) above the sea level at its highest point. Sea level rise will likely create climate refugees because of changes in both economy and habitat. Tourism supports more than 25 per cent of the Maldivian economy. As the islands slowly sink underwater, they can support fewer tourists and tourist facilities, such as hotels. Fishing is the nation’s second largest industry. The environment and economy of Maldives are threatened as sea levels rise and become less salty. The melting of polar ice caps increases the amount of freshwater in the ocean, as well as causing sea levels to rise. The increased amount of freshwater in the marine environ-ment threatens the delicate ecosystem of coral reefs that surround the islands. The habitat may not be able to support as many fish, threatening the fisheries around Maldives. Other fish may not be able to adapt to the less-salty water. Without income generated from tourism or fishing, many Maldivians may be forced to migrate to seek new jobs. Finally, sea level rise may sink all the 1200 islands of Maldives. This would force all Maldivians to find new places to live. The leaders of Maldives have worked with leaders in Australia, India, and Sri Lanka to plan an evacuation programme should Maldives become uninhabitable. Such movement of mass population due to climate change shall fall under the category of Climate Refugees because the affected population shall cross an internationally recognised border and seek asylum in a foreign country.

Less developed and developing nations, which have a long or active coast line, are vulnerable to climate change largely due to the threat of sea-level rise, a prominent impact of climate change. Reuveny (2007) has shown that a significant impact of climate change will be that people living in less developed countries may be more likely to migrate and cause conflict in receiving areas. One nation which has, and continues to witness large-scale creation of climate refugees is Bangladesh. Due to the extreme vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change-related disaster events and due to the low development status of this country, it is now largely accepted that the highest number of climate migrants will originate from Bangladesh. (Friedman, 2009) Researchers are already observing large-scale climate migration in southern regions, the Satkhira, Kuakata, Shoron-khola and Potuakhali districts of the country, and people from here are moving to regions where climate change related impacts are not as severe. (IUCN, 2005) One country facing the wrath of this large-scale movement of climate refugees from Bangladesh is India, which is its first neighbour. Climate migrants from Bangladesh can be found in every major city and several other regions of India.

According to the Government of India’s estimate, there are over 20 million Bangladeshi migrants living in India and do not have a valid sanction/ approval. (Jain, 2016) Such a large-scale migration of affected people from Bangladesh to India has not been sudden but over a period of time. A large number of these people migrated in search of better livelihood opportunities while a good proportion of these people migrated when climate-related conditions destroyed their houses and/or livelihood. The fact that such a large number of climate refugees are living in India, and that too without any legal sanctions, definitely indicates the need for developing an understanding of the movement of people due to climate change. It also calls for developing adequate policies and preventive measures for addressing this issue. It should also urge the respective nations in question as to what measures it needs to put in place to prevent climate-related migration by addressing the root cause(s) of this issue. This is of particular concern since research has already shown that in Bangladesh, households with lower income and less access to productive natural assets face higher exposure to the risk of flooding. (Brouwer et al., 2007) Nations like Bangladesh need to do much to protect its citizens from the vagaries of the changing climate. Innovative practices like floating agriculture (Chowdhury and Moore, 2017) can go a long way in ensuring the sustainable livelihood of the farmers in the wake of considerable struggle.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, the last year in which such a report was prepared. Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. “Environ-mental refugees are not protected by inter-national laws. They face greater political risks than refugees who flee their homes due to conflict or political oppression. Unlike traditional refugees, climate refugees may be sent back to their devastated homeland or forced into a refugee camp.”

Climate Refugees, the Way Forward

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges being faced by humanity in the ongoing 21st century. The indicators of this crisis became apparent as early as in 1981, with the broadcasting of a television documentary called Warming Warning. (Hickman, 2017) However, while the indicators of the climate crisis consistently kept drawing our attention, there was a simultaneous attempt to deny climate change in an organised manner. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011) The climate change denial lobby worked to keep its own interests first, and as a result it was ensured that there was no consensus on action for preventing climate change among either the citizens of the world or the policy-makers. This created a psycho-logical barrier in the citizens as well as policy makers (Garg, 2016) as a result of which the urgency of acting on climate change was never felt for a long time. The situation has now reached such a stage that the threshold has been crossed and even if we stop all carbon dioxide emissions today, the impact of climate change will still continue to be felt by nations around the world. Thus, the creation of climate refugees is both imminent as well as alarming. From the above analysis, it has also become clear that the number of climate-induced migrations and displacements will only rise in the near future.

An important intervention that is urgently required is to identify climate migration hotspots, regions which are or will be worst affected from climate change and from where people will be expected to migrate for the same reason. Such a heat map will aid the policy- makers in being better prepared and for also taking climate mitigation and adaptation-related pre-emptive steps. Since climate migration is usually internal and within a country, developing such a database may be augmented with high-lighting those cities/ regions that may become the choice of migration for the climate migrants. For regions where climate migration is cross-border, it is important that the governments of respective nations constitute committees or agencies focused specifically on the issue of climate refugees. There is also a need for a Protocol or Convention at the global level, which must be ratified by all nations. This is because unlike political refugees, climate refugees are a result of inactions of most developed and some developing nations which have failed to act on preventing climate change.

There is no specific agency at the govern-ment or inter-government level which has been created to manage and address the concerns of the existing and increasing climate refugees. (G20-Insights, 2017) According to estimates made by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a global research centre collecting information about displacement of people, the average annual displacement (AAD) of people figure due to disasters stands at 13.9 million. The principal disaster event, which is projected to cause the highest number of internal displacements across all countries, is that of flood. We already know that the hydrological cycle is the largest movement of matter in the biosphere and that the impacts of climate change will be felt most through floods and droughts. Thus, the AAD figure includes a large number of climate refugees, and eight of the top ten countries which are projected to witness large-scale internal displacement due to floods (and associated cyclones) are all located in Asia.

These are India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan and Indonesia, in that order. (IDMC, 2017) The flood-related disaster events will not only be restricted to the rural parts of these countries but also stand to affect the cities and urban areas, especially where the drainage system is old or inadequate. The above data also substantiates the fact that the impact of climate change on human society will be most prominent in less-developed and developing countries, which are already struggling to improve the living standards of their citizens. It is also a matter of concern to note that the top eight nations which are estimated to witness the highest internal displacement either share their political boundary or are located in the close vicinity of each other. This makes it even more important for each nation to begin identifying both the populations most prone to displacement due to the climate crisis and also identify areas to which these populations are most likely to migrate.

The need to formalise the identification and recognition of climate refugees emerges from both a humanitarian perspective and also because of geo-political reasons. As already stated, climate refugees are the result of the failure of nations to act to prevent climate change and the result of nations continuing to emit alarming concentrations of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This makes the issue of climate refugees related to those of climate justice and equity. Some nations and civil society organisations have attempted to set up climate justice or climate refugee funds in the recent past. However, such a fund for climate refugees needs to be set at the global level through the involvement of inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations. This fund should be immediately made available to the affected communities, who may otherwise be neither the proponent nor the causative factor behind continuing activities that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Such a fund could also be used for carrying out development-related activities in the communities/ regions affected or most likely to be affected due to climate change, and in building resilience and capacity of such communities/ regions. This fund will therefore not only assist the climate refugees, but may also prevent the process of creation of climate refuges altogether. It also needs to be mentioned that since the issue of climate refugees is a trans-disciplinary one, it requires for the various departments of respective governments to work together with each other. This is because unlike political refugees, climate refugees are a result of inactivity of most developed and some developing nations, who have failed to act on preventing climate change. For example, science has been warning about the impact of climate change on the island nation of Tuvalu—which consists of three islands and six scattered low-lying atolls. There is considerable literature to suggest that Tuvalu is one of the first inhabited parts of land that may submerge due to climate change. (McCubbin et al., 2015)

This is adding additional pressure to the already development-constrained citizens of this nation thereby leading to a situation where migration will remain the only option. Despite this, the principal polluter countries like the United States of America have still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, the USA has now also signed out of the Paris Climate Agreement. At the same time, while Maldives is another nation facing imminent crisis due to climate change, there is a need for initiating a dialogue between the elites and non-elite citizens of Maldives. (Arnall and Kothari, 2015) This will help ensure that the elites (usually the policy- makers) can appreciate the crisis situation and frame policies for adapting and mitigating to climate change, especially for the non-elites.

Specifically, agencies handling the matters of social welfare, human rights, environment and climate change, housing, urban and regional planning etc. need to work together for ensuring relief and justice to the climate refugees. It also requires greater awareness and sensitisation to be raised on the issue of climate refugees among citizens of all nations. This will ensure that such climate refugees will be dealt with compassion and concern in the event of any mass scale migrations to newer areas. The governments of all nations need to accept and understand that climate refugees are a consequence of ignoring the warnings of a warming Planet and nations, which have resisted actions for preventing climate change the most, perhaps need to contribute more for aiding in the adequate resettlement of these affected populations. Academic research also needs to contribute to the better understanding of the movement and challenges faced by climate refugees. Climate change must be seen as a humanitarian crisis and all agencies must work hand-in-hand for addressing its various impacts, most notable among them being the issue of climate refugees.


Most climate refugees are internal migrants. Internal migration is the process of people moving elsewhere in their own country. Often, climate refugees are rural and coastal residents who are forced to migrate to urban areas. These climate refugees face numerous problems. Skills such as herding and farming are not relevant in urban areas. Rural farmers are often more self-sufficient than many urban dwellers; they may not be familiar with depending on a corporation or other people for employment. Climate refugees who migrate outside their home countries face other difficulties. They must adjust to different laws, languages, and cultures. Climate refugees may encounter conflict with indigenous residents. Educational and health care systems must adjust to a sudden, new population. This population may speak a different language or have different customs than the native population.

Climate change may also increase the number of traditional refugees. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has noted that climate change can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict. (NGC, 2011) The above paragraph has been taken from an online article of National Geographic on Climate Refugees. It is this sublime interchangeability of terms from Environmental Refugees to Internal Refugees that this paper seeks to highlight. These fluid terms deter coherent policy-making and, most importantly, create the passage for states for not taking responsibility of the affected population. Internal forced migration due to environmental reasons fall under the category of Internally Displaced Persons who, under all circumstances, remain the responsibility of their states/ governments while refugees are recognised under the given frame of the 1951 Convention only when they seek asylum in a foreign country and cross the international border of their own country. Disasters shall not wait for time-consuming research, debate and deliberation on such socio-political constructs and study on sustainable development and environmental degradation remains incomplete without addressing such issues. Hence only through an interdisciplinary approach the time is ripe to settle with constructive blueprint and address the basic human rights of those who are the worst affected by such caveats of both the environment and government.


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Dr Shubhra Seth is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail:

Dr Govind Singh was formerly with the Department of Environmental Studies, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi.

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