Displacement due to climate change is increasing. In Bangladesh, over 70 lakh people have been rendered homeless due to this. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Rising climate refugees in Bangladesh a concern for India as well

  • The number of climate refugees in Bangladesh is on the rise. At present, there are 7.1 million refugees and the number may go up to 13.3 million by 2050.
  • India also faces internal migration due to climate change impact. Worsening situation in the neighbourhood can add to the pressure as people may come from across the border. 
  • With climate impacts intensifying, India may have to bear the increasing burden of refugees from countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka also. 
  •  Skills development and technical training to the youth in affected areas may help enable them to find employment elsewhere. 

About 70 km from capital Dhaka, lies the district of Shariatpur in Bangladesh. Here, the river Padma becomes so huge, and its stream is so intense, that it feels like an ocean. During the monsoon, Padma floods everything on its banks, and the erosion thus caused has  displaced people repeatedly. 

The Kunder Char Island in Shariatpur’s Naria sub-district houses over 7,000 such refugees who have been displaced over the past two decades. The island is formed by soil deposited by the river over the years (rivers cause erosion and accretion as well) and people have settled here in the past 15 years.

Ravaged by repeated displacement

After a two-hour boat ride, I reached Kunder Char. The houses I saw were a reflection of the people’s misery. All the houses were elevated by a few feet above the ground to let the flood water pass. Still, some people have to shift to the upper floors during monsoon flooding.

I met 23-year-old Sharmin Akhtar, who has already been displaced eight times in her short span of life. 

She says, “Erosion by the river repeatedly washes away our villages. Now we are settled here but there are many problems here, too. We don’t know when we will be uprooted from here as well.”

Sharmin’s husband works as a labourer in a distant city. The future of her two children who live with her is uncertain. Like Sharmin, Deepa also came here after her house was destroyed. Her heart trembles at the sight of the clouds rising in the sky.

Sharmin Akhtar, 23, living in Kunder Char in Shariatpur district, has been displaced eight times so far. The future of her two children is uncertain. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

She says, “The rains are here. After 10-15 days, we will be under waist-deep water. It will be difficult to get out of the house then. We don’t even have lavatories here, we use makeshift toilets. The water supply will also be disrupted in a few days, then we will have to bring water from distant places even to cook food.”

Dhaka journalist Aziz-ur Rehman Zidni, who accompanied me here, introduced me to 30-year-old Shintu, who has no house to live in.

Zidni says, “His house was washed away in the river last year. They don’t have a house yet. They live with people in the neighbourhood and keep shifting houses. There is no school here for their five children. The condition of healthcare and sanitation is also similar.”

Climate change driving migration

Kunder Char is not the only place where climate refugees have settled. Many areas of Bangladesh today are crowded with such people, and the number is increasing due to the impact of climate change.

Rushati Das, Programme Coordinator of Climate Action Network (South Asia), says that the plight of these people is aggravated by climate change. Earlier, the monsoon would spread over three to four months. Now, it all comes down within 15 or 20 days, considerably swelling the Padma river. The increased soil erosion also affects these people.

She further says, “You can see how people here have built their houses a foot or two above the ground level. Still, if an extreme weather event leads to heavy rains, the area is bound to be flooded. They will have to leave their home again and move away to a place where there may not be any land for farming, nor will there be any employment for these people.

Villagers living in Kunder Char may not have basic facilities like school and health, but they still have to pay rent for living on these islands.

The lands of these people repeatedly get washed away by the stream of River Padma. India will also bear the brunt of the increase in climate refugees, experts say. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Mohammad Shamsuddoha, chief executive of the Dhaka-based Center for Participatory Research and Development (CPRD), says, “This [Kunder Char] is a temporary home for these displaced people, but they are not the owners of the land. The land belongs to some rich people who rent these out for about 10 thousand taka annually to each family. There is no agriculture or employment here. The men go and live elsewhere where they can work as labourers or do small businesses.”

Julhas, 35, and his companions have picked a unique way to make a living. They ferry people arriving by boat on the banks of the Padma to the village on their motorcycles and thus earn 200 to 300 takas per day, but this is not enough to sustain.

Shamsuddoha says, “The pity is that there is not even a government primary school in this area. There are one or two private schools for which a family has to pay a fee of 100 to 500 takas. Healthcare facilities are also absent. People have to rush to nearby villages or areas under different police stations if they fall ill.”

Growing number of refugees but shrinking space

Today, many parts of Bangladesh are sinking underwater. Due to the rise of sea level and erosion caused by rivers, the number of displaced people is continuously increasing. The ravages of cyclonic storms add to the problem due to which, Bangladesh has been placed among the most vulnerable countries in the world. Even the capital Dhaka and Chittagong, one of the big cities, are sinking.

In its Global Climate Risk Index of 2021, Germanwatch ranked the country seventh in the list of most vulnerable countries in the world. According to the World Bank, there were 7.1 million climate refugees in Bangladesh in 2022 and by 2050, their number could go up to 13.3 million.

A major problem in Bangladesh is the lack of suitable land to settle people who are being displaced due to climate effects.

Mizan R Khan, climate change expert and deputy director at the Dhaka-based International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), says, “Water levels are rising and our land is getting washed away [by rivers and sea] but we have no place to retreat. In addition, we also have the burden of a million Rohingya refugees, which is an additional strain on resources.”

How crisis in Bangladesh impacts India

If the climate crisis escalates, it will affect the whole of South Asia. And, being the largest country in South Asia, India will surely be the preferred choice of the displaced refugees. According to the Asian Development Bank, both legal and illegal migration to India will increase due to the effects of climate change in neighboring countries. This migration can be of both permanent and temporary. Refugees or displaced persons from Bangladesh first reach West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

Shamsuddoha says that some people charge money from migrants to facilitate their entry to India via the southern border.

According to him, “People (who are frequently uprooted) go to India from Bangladesh to get temporary employment and for this they are charged 3,000 to 4,000 takas. These people send remittances from there (for their families) or return after earning some money.”

The issue of Bangladeshi refugees in India is already politically sensitive. In Assam and West Bengal, it has caused several incidents of conflict and violence. The climate crisis will increase the number of displaced people crossing the border. Shamsuddoha admits that such migration of people across the border could “increase tensions” between the two countries as it is a “matter of internal security”.

Not only in Bangladesh, but the number of people losing their houses and jobs due to climate impact is rising in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, too. A report by Climate Action Network South Asia and Action Aid says that by 2050, there will be 62 million climate refugees across South Asia. Many of these people will migrate to India. Thus, increasing climate impacts in South Asia can lead to an upheaval in India because nearly 5 million people have been displaced internally in India due to climate change. 

Providing job skills is the solution

Experts believe that education and technical skills could be the solution to the problem arising from climate displacement.

Mizan R Khan says, “There are many countries with less population where there is a need for skilled workers. This demand will increase in the coming days. For example, a skilled workforce is needed in Europe, which Bangladesh and other countries of South Asia can provide.”

The Government of Bangladesh is providing technical training to poor and marginalised people so that they can go to work in other countries. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Shariatpur Development Society, Social welfare organisation, established a training institute for skill development in 2016. Aided by the Government of Bangladesh, the society is training local boys and girls for work related to mobile phones, refrigeration, plumbing, air conditioning, etc.

Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, the founder member of the society and secretary of the Centre, says, “Every year, 400 to 500 skilled boys and girls get trained here. Their number will increase in the coming days. Now we are also giving nursing training to the girls.”

Mujeeb says the students trained at the Centre go to Dhaka to work, and also to countries of the Middle East, Malaysia and Europe.

According to Mizan, this would be an effective way to deal with climate-induced displacement when skilled workers reach the places where there is a shortage of workforce.

Mujib says, “Nobody would want to take poor unskilled refugees but there will be a demand for skilled workers in every country of the world.”

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