Sea Level Rise – Climate Refugee Issue to be a Watershed for Bangladesh

In October 2016 a roadmap on climate finance by developed countries was released, targeting $100 billion for developing countries by 2020 to face global warming consequences. Set out in the COP21 Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund (GFC) framework, it aims to help developing countries anticipate future environmental hardship. Among the numerous consequences of global warming, one hot-button issue is springing up in Bangladesh: environmentally displaced people.

Located on the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh has for decades been coping with numerous natural disasters; mainly cyclones sweeping the Bay of Bengal combined with monsoons flooding urban areas. In a country where agriculture employs 47% of the labour force, these tragedies trigger rural migration primarily towards the saturated capital, Dhaka. 2000 people settle there every week (400 000 a year), making it a clear case of climate migrations. Ironically, they wind up even less equipped to cope with natural disasters. According to the International Organization for Migration, 70% of the slum dwellers in Dhaka were forced to move because of environmental hardship. Unfortunately, fate seems merciless to Bangladeshis:  it is going to be one of the countries most affected by global warming.

A big portion of Bangladesh lies only a few meters above sea level, with a fifth of the country expected to be submerged within 40 years. Source: Global Warming Art License, Wikimedia Commons.
A big portion of Bangladesh lies only a few meters above sea level, with a fifth of the country expected to be submerged within 40 years. Source: Global Warming Art License, Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, according to the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh would see annual economic costs equivalent to 2% of its GDP by 2050, widening to 9.4% by the end of this century because of climate change consequences. Global warming will increase the melting rate of Himalaya glaciers’ resulting in an increase of flooded areas by up to 29% at a 2.5 degree increase in global temperatures. Sea level could rise by 0,6 meters by 2085, salinizing current drinking water and making 40% of the productive land uncultivable. As half of Bangladesh’s soil is situated less than 5 meters over sea level, cities like Khulna would be almost inundated. Coupled with a 1,86% population growth rate in the densest country in the world and with increasingly saturated cities, Bangladeshis will soon have no other choice but to migrate to other countries instead of internal urban areas.

This leads us to another issue: international climate migrations. The backbone of the problem is juridical. There are indeed neither any universally recognized definition of environmental refugees nor any international convention tackling this issue.  The 1951 Refugee Convention (the so-called Geneva Convention) and its 1967 Protocol only address the question of political refugees persecuted by their own government. It relies on the principle of non-refoulement forbidding a State to expel asylum seekers to a country where there are likely to be persecuted. In a historical perspective, it seems logical. However legal instruments regarding refugees haven’t evolved since 1967; stricto sensu and legally speaking, environmental displaced people are therefore not refugees. It is thus ironically not surprising that New Zealand’s government refused asylum to a Kiribati citizen that invoked the global warming argument.

But is the international community likely to extend the Geneva Convention or to agree on a new treaty? Not really. First of all, the issue of climate migration wasn’t evoked in international negotiations until as late as 2010 (COP16), where some countries did not even state their position. Secondly, we should look at current geopolitics. The Trump administration doesn’t even believe in global warming and is adamant on immigration. The European Union has difficulty coping with current refugee influx. Australia and New Zealand fear massive immigration from the Pacific Islands Nations.

Source: Amir Jina, Flickr.

Bangladesh’ neighbours as well seem unlikely to provide assistance. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated during the 2014 electoral campaign that Bangladeshis “better be prepared with their bags packed”. Even though no new laws have been enacted against the 20 million Bangladeshis living in India, the erection of barbed wire fencing along the 4 000km border should be completed this very year. Moreover, Bangladeshis are perpetually considered to be economic immigrants in the Indian political discourse, and not climate refugees. Myanmar, the other neighbour, is not likely to offer help either. Indeed, as thousands of persecuted Rohingya seek refuge there, the Bangladesh-Myanmar border is tightly controlled and relatively closed.

Therefore, Bangladesh relies more than ever on international aid. The amount of funding from different international organizations, such as the World Bank, is very likely to increase in the wake of the Paris Agreement and the Roadmap on climate finance. Besides, without benefiting from a strong diplomacy, alliances or partnership, Bangladesh’s way to attract funds is – as described by Bangladesh’s specialist Alice Baillat – a diplomacy of ‘weak power’. It mainly means Bangladesh portrays itself an extremely vulnerable nation in absolute need of help. Nonetheless, this diplomacy is criticized from within. To understand it, we’ll let Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University of Bangladesh Saleemal Huq have the last words:

“The criteria by which we will get more funding is not by asserting our vulnerability over others, but rather by demonstrating good practice in transparency and accountability of climate funding.”

Arthur François

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