This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.
Migration across the Bay of Bengal has a long history, but it has recently reemerged in the international spotlight, along with debates about the push and pull factors that have prompted thousands of people to risk their lives at sea rather than remain in Myanmar or Bangladesh. Yet there is one important factor missing from this discussion: climate change.
In the coming decades, migration across the Bay of Bengal is likely to increase as the impacts of climate change become more frequent and severe. Predictions indicate that climate change will dramatically affect countries ringing the Bay, and climate change migration in wider South and Southeast Asia will be extensive. Southeast Asia is home to the highest annual rate of growth in migration globally, and displacement is already being caused by projects justified as climate change mitigation or adaptation strategies.
The persecution and poverty in Bangladesh and Myanmar that is prompting the present population movement needs to be understood and addressed. But forward thinking is also necessary: these two countries will be among the hardest hit by climate change. The impacts of climate change will produce increasing migration as the environment is degraded, extreme weather events intensify, and economic conditions deteriorate.
Bangladesh’s geography—low elevations from the sea and many floodplains—combined with its reliance on resources, and high population density and levels of poverty, makes it particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, high temperatures, and extreme floods and cyclones. Bangladesh already endures the most severe storm category cyclones, which are expected to increase in frequency. Sea-level rise will inundate even larger areas than would otherwise occur from extreme weather events, which could cause up to 40 percent of productive land to be in lost in the southern part of the country. It would also put an estimated 15 to 18 million people at risk of displacement. Flooding will cause severe losses of land, lives, and homes. A 2.5 degree Celsius warming from pre-industrial temperatures could increase flooded areas by as much as 29 percent. Risk to water and food security is very high; 20 million people in the coastal area are already affected by salinity in drinking water, and this will worsen with further contamination of water sources from climate change impacts.
Myanmar is similarly at risk. Like Bangladesh, food security is under threat from rising temperatures and sea level. Myanmar is second on the Global Climate Risk Index of countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1994-2013, with such events expected to increase with rising temperatures. Bangladesh is sixth on this list. Myanmar most recently ranked lower than Bangladesh on the Global Adaptation Index, the two falling at 158th and 142nd respectively out of 180 countries, due to exposure and lack of ability to adapt to climate change impacts. Similarly, Climate Central puts Bangladesh at the fifth and Myanmar the tenth most at-risk countries in the world as a result of climate change.
The scope and scale of migration produced by the impacts of climate change will be extensive, although it will not always be easy to draw direct connections between environmental changes and the conditions that cause specific individuals to move. Indeed, such migration will often appear to be economic, as livelihoods and everyday living conditions are made increasingly difficult. Vulnerable and poor populations will be among the first to be displaced; whether people are driven to move by persecution or by economic desperation, the impacts of climate change will both help to generate—and increase susceptibility to—these conditions. A reduced ability or capacity to adapt will also mean that many will be forced to migrate to survive.
Those currently fleeing Myanmar appear to have a strong claim to refugee status. However, this is rendered moot when those obliged to provide assistance fail to do so: the recent reticence of states in the region to provide protection or recognize people fleeing as refugees highlights the gaps in and breakdown of existing international legal regimes. None of these states have adopted the Refugee Convention, and they appear to be challenging the principle of non-refoulement by turning away people whose lives and fundamental freedoms are at risk. As climate change triggers increasing migration, claims for legal protection or status in countries of arrival will be even more difficult to establish, given the complexity of factors prompting migration. Environmental change does not impact people in isolation, and a decision to move is often motivated by a number of factors that makes it difficult or imprudent to categorize people on the basis of such change. These drivers complicate traditional notions of refugees and migrants, underscoring the importance of finding new ways to address migration and the needs of people who move.
The migration that climate change will induce cannot be addressed through the independent actions of states working exclusively within their own borders. States still need to address displacement domestically, as a great deal of migration triggered by the impacts of climate change will be internal. Nonetheless, regional cooperation is required. Thailand hosted multilateral discussions regarding people fleeing across the Bay of Bengal, although no long-term solution emerged. While these discussions are an important step, more is needed: regional cooperation cannot only be reactive as such crises emerge—it must also become an ongoing process that takes into account our changing climate. There is increasing foresight surrounding these changes and their impacts. This knowledge provides an opportunity to improve resilience and plan for migration, both as a potential adaptive mechanism that states can implement and as a choice that individuals will continue to make.
Lauren Nishimura has been conducting research on the intersections of climate change, migration, and international law since 2012, which she will build on in doctoral research at the University of Oxford starting in Fall 2015. Prior to this she was based in Myanmar and in Thailand, where she worked on environmental and human rights issues with EarthRights International (full time) and the International Commission of Jurists (as a consultant). From 2006-2013, she was a litigator in the United States, with a focus on environmental law and renewable energy. She holds an MSt in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford, a JD from the Georgetown University Law Center, and a BA from Vassar College.