The Plight of Climate Migrants in Urban Settings: Experiences of Dhaka city

There is no chance of any debate about the existence of climate change. It is happening right now. The world’s  scientific community has already acknowledged the gravity of climate change impacts that the humanity is facing now, and to be faced in near future if global political leadership fail to contain temperature rise well below 2 degree centigrade-the global goal set by endorsing the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Already, with a 1 degree warming world from the preindustrial level is causing adverse impact, especially in the developing countries. Among the foreseeable impacts forced displacement and migration could be the worst form that would disrupt many of the human rights while posing persistent risk to national and global security, along with creating other social and
cultural difficulties. According to the first assessment report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about 150 million people will be migrated and displaced due to different natural disasters like flood, cyclone, scarcity of water and desertification by 2050 (IPCC, 1990), meantime in 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council estimated around 20 million displacement caused by the adverse effects of climate change (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2015).
Bangladesh, being one of the most climate vulnerable  countries, is frequently cited as a ‘ground case’ of  displacement and migration. In coastal Bangladesh, for example, sea level rise and extreme weather events like flooding and tropical cyclones could forcibly dislocate more than 35 million people.

Being unable to survive in the increasingly climatic risk exposed locations people are already migrating to the urban areas, preferably to the Dhaka city. Destination of those migrants usually ends-up in the urban slums, where they again being trapped to another episode of risk and vulnerabilities-along with socio-economic deprivation and violation of basic human rights.

Based on the empirical observations on the causes and consequences of climate induced displacement and migration, this article analyses plight of the climate migrants living in Dhaka city and recommends several measures for rights-based solutions of climate change induced displacement and migration.

Disasters that trigger displacement and migration
Migration or displacement is not a new issue for Bangladesh. People usually displace and migrate for many different reasons that cover social, political, economic, and disaster incidents. However, the recent discourses on  displacement and migration suggests that the climate change induced weather events, both slow and sudden onsets, are forcing people to be displaced and migrated especially for the southern Bangladesh.

On November 15, 2007, the south-west coastal belt of Bangladesh especially Patuakhali, Barguna and Jalokathi districts were hit by a category 4 cyclone Sidr – resulted to loss of life, rupturing of coastal embankment, road, infrastructure & housing and loss of standing crop. In two years gap another severe cyclone ‘Aila’ hit the same coastal districts affecting around 9.3 million people (Islamic Relief, 2014) and leaving 1 million homeless (Emergency Capacity Building Project, 2009). Further, Cyclone Mohasen in 2013 displaced more than a million people from the
southeastern coastal areas. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center considered this as the fourth large displacement caused by a natural anomalies that year (IDMC, 2015). Again in 2016 and 2017 the southeastern
coast of Bangladesh was hit respectively by Cyclone Roanu and Cyclone Mora; while Cyclone Roanu caused substantive economic loss of the sanding crops and damaged around 1 million households (Daily Star, 2017), the later affected 3.3 million people and displaced hundreds of thousands (Relief Web, 2017). It is noteworthy that the frequency of deadly cyclone have increased alarmingly; within 10 year period from 2007-2017, Bangladesh faced 5 high velocity cyclones-on an average 1 in every 2 years, however gap between two consecutive cyclones is even
less than 2 years. The frequent attack of these cyclones pushes people even deeper to the danger as they loss
almost all their means of living and cannot recover within a short gap of occuring the next extreme event.
Such a situation forces people to flee away elsewhere from the climate hot-spots as an attempt of ‘survival’.

While sudden onset disasters e.g. tropical cyclones are causing mass displacement, the slow onset disasters like drought, sea level rise and salinity intrusion are also forcing people to be migrated respectively from Northern and Southern part of Bangladesh. The combined impact of sea level rise and saline water influx by tropical cyclones in the southern coastal areas already pushed smallholders to dire livelihoods crisis as saline water abandoned most of
the agricultural lands. The availability of saline water, in turn, boasts shrimp cultivation putting livelihoods of agricultural labor at stake. As number of shrimp farms, locally known as ‘Gher’, goes high, the numbers of migrated people also goes high as the shrimp farms require seasonal and comparatively less labor.  Many smallholders are also found selling their small pieces of land to the wealthy shrimp farm owners and migrate elsewhere permanently. People of Khulna’s kayra, Dakop and Paikgacha, Mongla and Sharankhola of Bagerhat, Assasuni and Shyamnagar upazilas of Satkhira are at the highest risk of salinity ingress and population growth has declined in these three districts in the last three years, as presumably people are migrating from those Upazillas.

Destination of Migrants: Big cities are the first choice
Unable to make a living in the climatic risk exposed areas people undertake both seasonal and permanent migration primarily to the bigger cities as cities could provide employment opportunities- despite having many other social and economic constrain. A major portion of the climate migrants prefers Dhaka city as they think this city could offer diversified livelihoods options; besides easy communication and connection to already migrated people to that city etc. are also major pull factors that attracts migrants primarily to the Dhaka City. Accoring to the Independent (2016), 2000 people daily enter into Dhaka city. Public Radio International (2010) cautioned that the population
of Dhaka city will rise to 20 million in 2025, wherein internal migration would contribute about 63 % of the total increase of Dhaka’s population (The Independent, 2016). Such trend in population growth in Dhaka city would make this city more populated than some megacities such as Mexico City and Beijing. Figure 1 shows remarkable and steady increase of urban population from 2.4% in 1901 to 23.3% in 2011. As observed, Kallayanpur Slum, Beguntila Slum and Korail Slum are the notable places where climate migrants settle down to survive. IOM (International
Organization for Migration) stated that about 70% of the slum dwellers are climate migrants (Daily Sun, 2017).

Major Challenges faced by the Migrants
Currently, about 40% of the total population of Dhaka city live in the informal settlement of slum (ICCCAD, 2015). Again in the urban settings the slum dwellers become the first victims of any natural calamities e.g. seasonal flooding and water logging and face all sorts of social and economic deprivation. They are also left behind from enjoying basic human rights like access to energy facilities, access to safe drinking water, heath, sanitation and education facilities.

It is not a new issue that groundwater problem is so severe in Dhaka city. The water table is depleting 3 meters per year (Islam & Islam, 2017). Slum people do not get adequate water to maintain their daily household chores. Though some non-government initiative e.g. Habitat International, DSK (Dushtha Shasthya Kendra), BRAC, WaterAid etc. are providing support services, including safe drinking water, to the slum dwellers but these are still inadequate. gain, in an unhealthy environmental condition the slum people, especially the children, are being affected by various vector-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea. They also suffer from dengue fever carried by Aedes mosquito. Climate is regarded one of the significant factors for dengue fever (Ebi & Nealon, 2016) as the said vector prefer breeding in the relatively warmer and water logged environment.

The transition of occupation of the migrated people is another big concern. Cities though offer diverse employment opportunities e.g. day labor, rickshaw pulling, working in readymade garments or street vending but the migrants having some skills on agricultural activities often  cannot adapt with the new profession. However, they don’t have other choices as most of them are illiterate. Besides, migrants in the urban context often faces harassment by the employers or by police at the street or in the slum as many of the slums in Dhaka city are built illegally. Hence the slum dwellers live with the persistent threat and trauma of being evicted at any time. For instance, the Korail Slum, Dhaka’s largest informal settlement was evicted on the 4th of April, 2012 resulting the removal of illegal structures, including houses, shops and tea stall. According to slum resident, several people got injured and one girl went under
the bulldozer during forced eviction (The Guardian, 2012).

These people are basically low wage worker but have to expense more on food, medicine and water. They are
also the helpless victims of extortion, ransacking and monetary exploitation. It is not a rare picture in Dhaka
city that police take bribes from the street vendors if he or she wants to run their business (The Guardian,
2012). Sometimes they even can’t go for working due to political turmoil which also brings huge pressure to
them and their family.

Global Context of Forced Migration:
Still there is no any institution of legal mandate to discuss the cause and consequences of climate change induced displacement and migration and the basic human rights of the climate migrants. In the 1951 refugee covenant there is no legal definition of  environmental or climate migrants. According to the Article 1 of the 1951 Convention a refugee is “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. On the other hand, there is no legal basis and legal regime for the protection of climate migrants in international law.

However, decisions text (CP 16; para f) of the 16th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC held in 2010 included a stand-alone paragraph 14(f) on displacement and migration. That decision only discussed about the understanding of displacement and migration but avoided the causes and consequences of climate change induced displacement
and migration. At the 18th COP held in Doha in 2012, some relevant text on displacement and migration was
included in the “draft decision 3” aside by Paragraph 14 (f). Following the decision (decision 3) of COP 18, an institutional mechanism named “Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM)” was established to address the climate change induced loss and damage and slow and sudden onset events in the developing countries that are vulnerable to the adverse effect of climate change (Decision 2/COP19).

In December 2014, at COP 20 an initial two year work plan was developed under the WIM. Out of nine action areas as identified in the work plan, displacement and migration was placed in Action Area 6 “Migration, Displacement and Mobility”. The main objective of that Action Area was to boost understanding of how climate change is affecting
migration, displacement and human mobility and what policy steps could be taken to enable people’s mobility as a measure of resilience building.

After reviewing the progress of two year work plan, a five year rolling work plan (2017-2021) was developed
at COP 22 in 2016 held in Marrakesh, Moroccco. The five year rolling work plan is divided into six strategic
work streams. Amongst them, Strategic Work stream (d) discusses about the enhanced cooperation and
facilitation in relation to human mobility, including migration, displacement and planned relocation.

National context of Forced Migration
Being one of the most climate affected countries Bangladesh so far has developed a number of strategies and sectoral plans to tackle the adverse impacts of climate change. They include the National Adaptation Programme of Action
(NAPA) developed in 2005 (modified in 2009); Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) developed in 2008 (modified in 2009); Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Act 2010; Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in 2015. Among them BCCSAP, which is considered as the most strategic one, includes 44 programmes under six pillars but none of them explicitly mentions the primacy of addressing climate change induced displacement and migration.

Concluding Remarks
It can be concluded that the future of Dhaka city is on the edge of collapse if effective measures are not taken timely. While it is important to make Dhaka as a migrant’s friendly city, however the most strategic intervention would be undertaking localized adaptation measures and livelihoods diversification so that people prefer staying back at their homes of origin. Given the context, government could take some pragmatic steps like improving the adaptive
capacity of the vulnerable people, establishment of coastal embankment to reduce risk of flooding, distribution of salinity resistant seed to the farmers and make climate related information available to all the people. Furthermore, social and cultural facility need to be increased in rural area. Garments and big industries should be decentralized to another city in order to ease the pressure exerted by huge population. Finally, urban planners and policy makers
of Bangladesh should formulate proper policies on urbanization and urban settlement.

About the Author
S. M. Saify Iqbal
S. M. Saify Iqbal has completed his graduation and
post-graduation in Geography and Environment from
University of Dhaka. Currently he is working as a
research assistant at Center for Participatory Research
and Development (CPRD).

This article was written from the findings of an ongoing research of CPRD which is supported by Bread for the World.