Why Should we Care About Environmental Migration?

Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This is due to its geography — a low-lying delta that floods routinely during the monsoon season and a coastline prone to cyclones and erosion from sea level rise. At the other end of the spectrum, drought and limited access to fresh water are also environmental challenges for millions of Bangladeshis.

Words

Sabira Coelho
“Our lives are more miserable than even anyone could imagine. God gave us nothing.” — Hasina Begum, Bangladesh.

This article by Sabira Coelho was featured in The Beam #8, subscribe to The Beam for more.

Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This is due to its geography — a low-lying delta that floods routinely during the monsoon season and a coastline prone to cyclones and erosion from sea level rise. At the other end of the spectrum, drought and limited access to fresh water are also environmental challenges for millions of Bangladeshis.

A study conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2015 shows that these natural hazards affect migration patterns across the country. Natural hazards that occur suddenly often contribute to displacement. But slow-onset processes also compel people to move, usually to the nearest urban area, to offset losses in household income caused by loss of crops and land.

“Cyclone Aila took everything from us”: disaster displacement in Bangladesh

In 2009, Cyclone Aila displaced approximately two million people. Nearly 10 years later, many of those left homeless by the storm continue to live in difficult conditions. Tens of thousands have moved into informal settlements or slums in the capital, Dhaka.

Those who survived the cyclone tell stories of how people left the affected areas overnight, leaving a few behind. People who moved often did not go far, choosing locations on embankments a few kilometres away from their home villages. Many of these people were subsequently displaced again and again, yet continue to live in these precarious areas, as land close to the eroding river banks is cheaper.

“I can’t bear to see my innocent, beloved daughters working in this dump yard from morning till night just to survive.” Nurjahan Begum in Narayanganj, Bangladesh

Faced with the hardship of protracted displacement, affected communities exhibit a mixture of fatalism and resilience. Those who stay after a disaster may be trapped by a lack of money, which makes it impossible for them to move, or may make a conscious decision to stay out of respect for their ancestors. Those who stay may later have to move as their disaster-affected land loses its fertility due to salinisation over time.

Salina Begum, who eventually moved from cyclone-affected Sathkhira elaborates: “Hundreds of people left our villages after Aila due to lack of food, sweet water and a secure life. But we did not leave then. We did not want to leave our forefathers’ land and show disrespect.”

In areas where populations are engaged in farming or fishing, the destruction of livelihoods often create conditions conducive to indebtedness and human trafficking. Families sell their wedding jewelry and other family assets to make up for lost income and to finance their journeys to the capital.

Hasina Begum even admits to selling her youngest son into bonded labour to help her family survive. “We had one little piece of land to cultivate that we had to sell four years back for very little money. After the cyclone, nothing grows on our land anymore, so no one wanted to buy it. My husband and I both used to breed fish in our own pond. That was the only work and source of income for us. But then there was no sweet water anywhere anymore. Aila took everything from us: our house, our land, our fish pond, the food from our mouths and even our son.”

Several years after a disaster, those without savings to cushion the shock are still struggling to get their lives back on track. State support through social protection and safety net programs are needed, but were either insufficient or did not reach those with the greatest needs.

Migration as a coping strategy

The situation is similar for people affected by slow-onset environmental changes such as droughts, coastal erosion and salinisation that occur over a long period of time. As these are not life-threatening, there is little by way of humanitarian assistance or state support. Instead, migration either of families or young people to urban areas serves as a lifeline, enabling communities to cope with climate change and disasters.

“(…) I work from morning to evening inside this dark, noisy, hot, and dirty factory. (…) Cyclone Aila took away all of our happiness. That one night changed our lives and forced us to leave our home.” Arif in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Nonetheless, the general perception amongst urban migrants is that migration is usually ‘unwilling’ or forced. It is a reaction to declining agricultural income precipitated by climate change, combined with the absence of jobs, rather than a proactive decision stemming from the desire to migrate.

This perception stems from the realisation of the many challenges associated with urban life. These include long working hours in factories with poor conditions, informal sector jobs that involve hard work but little pay and uncertainty of tenure in slum settlements.

“(…) As each year passes by and we count ourselves fortunate; we count each new breath as good luck. The year of Cyclone Aila in 2009 was the curse of my life.” Ashuganj, Bangladesh

“Even though we were hungry on our island, we never wanted to move to Dhaka, explains Morjina Begum. But we had nothing left but these two hands. Without food or a job, these hands are incapable of feeding our mouths. So, I listened to my husband and came to Dhaka for work. My husband is a daily labourer and I work as a cook in a canteen where labourers eat every day. I have to work hard the whole day for 3000 taka and food for myself. Sometimes I can take some leftovers for my children. Life is very hard here too, but at least we have opportunities for income. We can eat three times a day. My children don’t have to starve anymore. That is what I have wanted my whole life.”

“We have lost our home 14 times due to river erosion; this is my 15th house. It takes 2–3 hundred thousand taka to rebuild a house (…) you lose everything. Now I have nothing except my wife.” Kala Chan (100 years old) in Sariya kandi, Bogura, Bangladesh

Addressing migration, environment and climate change issues in policy and practice

IOM is working in the Asia-Pacific region to try to understand the effects of climate change and how it drives migration, including displacement, planned relocation of entire villages and voluntary migration. Our definition of environmental migration encompasses all movements of individuals or groups for compelling reasons related to sudden or progressive changes in the environment, over any distance and duration of time.

“I poured my sweat and blood into building my house. After so many years, one day like a nightmare, the river Jamuna took away our house. Now I have only memories and nowhere to live. We could not save anything except our lives.” Shaha Ali in Sariya kandi, Bogura, Bangladesh

From the mountainous regions of Nepal to small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the grasslands of Mongolia and the delta and coastal regions of Bangladesh: we have also looked at the challenges and opportunities associated with environmental migration, and how this can be leveraged for climate change adaptation.

The conclusions of these projects are always similar. First, environment and climatic factors drive migration, although rarely in a linear fashion.

Second, communities tend to perceive migration as unwilling, harbouring nostalgic and sentimental feelings about their home villages. Often, they understand economic factors as the key motivator of movement. This sentiment differs with age, as the youth prefer to migrate and the elderly want to stay.

“Every year unseasonal flash flooding and extreme river erosion made people’s lives in North Bengal impossibly miserable. Countless people lose their children and their cattle every year. People of this land live a life of uncertainty.” Bilkis Begum in Sariya kandi, Bogura, Bangladesh

Third, migration enables families to survive. But a range of individual, social and economic factors and most critically, policy frameworks, determine whether migration can be a beneficial process. And finally, despite all the progress made in understanding the migration, environment and climate change nexus, there is still a critical knowledge and evidence gap.

These conclusions were reiterated in the recently launched Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5℃. The approved text of the Global Compact for Migration also acknowledges these points. And global policy frameworks like the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction mention the opportunities and challenges associated with migration in the context of climate change and disasters.

“(…) I was a farmer with land. We used to have happy and beautiful days before the drought. But now because of the drought nothing grows in our field. The drought killed everything; it killed our happiness and now it is going to kill my wife.” Rohomot Ali in Dhaka, Bangladesh

What this means is that there is some albeit imperfect understanding and acknowledgement of environmental migration in scientific texts and global policy. The next step is to move from policy to practice, ensuring that disaster-related displacement is mitigated, affected populations are protected, and migration serves as an adaption option.

“At the age of six for the first time, I had to rebuild our destroyed home with my parents when the flood hit us. Then the river took our land. I grew up during those nights; when the river took every dream we had.” — Ashma Begum in Chilmary, Bangladesh

Acknowledgement: The human stories and photo series were produced by photographer GMB Akash under the auspices of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and an international coalition of 400 civil society groups campaigning for UN member states to recognise climate change as a key cause of displacement and a driver of migration.

“My children ask me all the time why we have to move from one island to another. (…) My home has been taken by the river six times. (…) If my husband can catch a fish, we can survive another day. We fear the future and fight for today.” Khodeja in Hatiya, Bangladesh

Sabira Coelho has served as the Regional, Migration Environment and Climate Change Officer at the International Organization for Migration’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific since 2016. During this time, Sabira has provided technical support to IOM missions in Mongolia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Pacific region in undertaking research projects to assess the nexus of climate change and migration and capacity building workshops for policymakers.

This article was featured in The Beam #8, subscribe to The Beam for more.

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