As Climate Change Worsens, India Must Consider a Policy on Environmental Migration

A regional framework would allow India to determine its responsibilities towards migrants escaping natural disasters and slow-onset environmental changes.

Passengers sit on top of an overcrowded train as it heads for Jamalpur from Dhaka August 16, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Biraj/Files

Passengers sit on top of an overcrowded train as it heads for Jamalpur from Dhaka August 16, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Biraj/Files

On October 2, India became a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, hence moving a step closer to achieving its goal of reducing carbon emissions. However, neither the climate pact nor the recently concluded United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants addressed the direct human cost of climate change: the displacement of millions by natural disasters and slow-onset environmental changes.

It is well established that climate change often forces the affected populations to move from their habitual place of residence. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 19.3 million people were displaced worldwide in 2014 due to climate change, with studies indicating that the number could be anywhere between 250 million and one billion by 2050.

The geographically diverse Indian subcontinent is particularly vulnerable to a wide variety of natural disasters, and India, as the largest country in the region, is the destination to move to for those displaced by these disasters. Floods, storm surges, saltwater intrusions and cyclones have pushed millions of people from rural Bangladesh into India. Earthquakes and water-induced disasters in Nepal, droughts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the rise in sea levels around the Maldives are also likely to cause large-scale migration into India in the future.

Moreover, the vulnerability of populations to climate change-related disasters goes beyond physical risk. There are also economic, social and cultural fallouts from such disasters, and these also drive migration, making it difficult to distinguish between environmental and economic migrants.

Broadly speaking, a community that is less equipped to anticipate, cope with and recover from a natural disaster, is more likely to migrate. Thus, a population that is already battling poverty will find it more difficult to rebuild their livelihood after a major natural disaster and would have no option other than leaving the area in an attempt to start afresh elsewhere.

Conversely, climate change can also cause an escalation in political unrest and push people to migrate in search of a more peaceful country. The Syrian refugee crisis is an example of this phenomenon. Syria was plagued by a severe drought between 2007-2010, which resulted in the migration of more than a million people from rural to urban areas and triggered a social unrest that contributed to the popular uprising in 2011. Environmental change and socio-political change are thus often intertwined, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of migration of a particular set of people.

Legal issues arising from migration

The legal issues around environmental displacement are multidimensional. Most often the affected populations move to a safer area within their own country – in which case they are referred to as ‘internally displaced’. These people continue to remain under the protection of their own government and should be managed through domestic laws and internal policy decisions.

However, the issue becomes complicated when those displaced cross the border into another country, raising the question of whether or not they can avail the protection of their new country of residence, and if so, under what legal framework. There is no internationally accepted instrument to govern this category of migrants. The cross-border displaced who have migrated due to climate change are not recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol, and thus do not qualify for protection under national or international legal frameworks for refugee protection.

In fact, the international community is yet to agree even on a definition of this category of displaced persons. Very few countries recognise environmentally-displaced persons as a specific group, notable among them being Sweden and Finland. Some, like the US and the EU, have instruments of temporary protection addressing sudden onset natural disasters but are less applicable to slow-onset adverse environmental change.

While there has been a growing recognition of climate change-induced cross-border displacement, experts are divided on how to address this crisis. Countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh have in the past proposed amending the 1951 convention to include ‘climate refugees’ within its mandate, but some scholars feel that doing so would dilute refugee protection as it exists.

Thus, global consensus on the issue of climate change displacement has been elusive. There remains the need to reach an agreement on the very definition of environmental refugees, as well as on the principles of responsibility-sharing and protection. In the absence of this agreement, a regional framework or bilateral agreement would be the most viable alternative for South Asia. Needless to say, it would be in India’s interest to drive such an initiative. Such an agreement would take into account the existing geopolitical and economic relations, and allow the countries involved to take measures based on their political will and capacity. It would also allow for good practice to be developed and exchanged within the region.

Hamsa Vijayaraghavan and Deepti Somani work for the Ara Trust, a centre for refugee law and forced migration studies based in New Delhi.