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The legal limbo of climate refugees



More and more people are displaced for environmental reasons, yet we are still to act to mitigate climate change or help those forced to move, writes Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik.

On the evening of 24 November 2012, as hundreds of workers sat behind sewing machines fulfilling orders from transnational companies, a fire broke out inside Dhaka’s Tazreen garment factory. The building was a death trap: outdoor exits were missing, iron grilles barred many windows and the adjacent road was not wide enough for firefighters to get through. Guards and managers reportedly told employees to ignore the false alarm and return to work.

The flames ripped through the building, smoke choking lungs. For workers on the upper floors, the only way out was through the windows. Guided by mobile-phone lights in the darkness, they made their way through the smoulder and jumped, some to their deaths.

That night 124 people were killed. Over 100 others sustained life-altering injuries from the jump. Many relatives weren’t able to identify their loved ones among the charred bodies; 53 bodies were laid to rest unclaimed.

Related: Out of the ashes of Rana Plaza

The majority of the victims of the Tazreen crime were young women who had come to Dhaka to earn a living in the country’s largest export industry. In research conducted after the disaster, a team led by anthropologist Mahmadul Sumon came across a startling statistic: a large number of those who died were from a small district in northern Bangladesh notable for its water stress and depleted harvests.


We are living in an age when more people than ever are being uprooted. The number of people that have been forcibly displaced is at its highest since records began: 65.3 million. People are displaced due to an interplay of factors and there is danger in oversimplifying why people leave their homes. Climate change, in particular, is hard to isolate as an exclusive cause, but there is little doubt that it is increasingly exacerbating the drivers of migration.

Around the world, climate migration is already taking place

A distinction is often drawn between the immediate- and slow-onset impacts of climate change. Immediate impacts are the dramatic weather events that dominate the imagery and news coverage of climate change: mudslides, floods, forest fires, superstorms. In 2014, the United Nations calculated that around 53,000 people were displaced daily by ‘natural disasters’, most of which are directly intensified by climate change.

A man sits covering himself with an umbrella on the roof of a house affected by Hurricane Matthew in Port-a-Piment, Haiti, on 9 October 2016. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

But less visible are the slow-onset impacts: changing rainfall, water scarcity, coastal erosion, ocean acidification, land salination, crop failure. While not as visually dramatic, these impacts have significant consequences on agriculture, income, nutrition, mental and physical health, family and community life. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has predicted that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacement, both inside and across national borders, within the not-too-distant future.

Those most deprived and vulnerable in our societies will typically be those most at risk of environmental displacement. Migration is only one of many responses they have to economic and environmental stress and is used in different ways: for some it is a last resort, for others a method of resilience.

Around the world, climate migration is already taking place.

In China, where 95 per cent of the country’s poor live in areas particularly sensitive to climate change, millions have been displaced. Many of them subsequently move to cities, and enter the workforce, often taking up some of the most precarious positions in the labour market. In Latin America, water stress has triggered displacement in the Peruvian Andes and across Mexican farmlands, and rising sea levels have threatened communities in Panama’s San Blas archipelago. In Africa, the chronic drought wracking the Sahel has driven many households from their ancestral lands.

Perhaps the most acute expression of climate migration is seen in the Sundarbans region, which comprises parts of southeast India and southwest Bangladesh. Over the last few years, rising sea levels have shaved the coast, and saltwater has seeped further into the land. The desperation wrought by lost homes, farmlands and livelihoods has led to a surge in trafficking and urban migration, with many local citizens moving to the slums of Dhaka and Kolkata in search of employment. Some 400,000 people settle in Dhaka every year, with research showing that 70 per cent of them have fled some kind of environmental stress.

Environmental migrants often struggle to find work, and are forced to turn to precarious and frequently exploitative labour, including sex work and jobs in sectors with low pay, such as the garment industry.

This dynamic exemplifies a worrying tendency for labour rights. As a report by the Just Jobs Network outlines, ‘not only do the impacts of climate change take away people’s livelihoods, they also speed up the processes that are making work more precarious. Climate-induced migration accelerates migration to cities, saturating urban labour markets and placing downward pressure on wages and working conditions.’

When we talk about adaptation to climate change, we must also talk about safe and dignified work opportunities for those who must abandon their homes and homelands. To tackle our connected crises of climate violence and eroded labour rights, we need an immediate and just transition across the board, for workers of industries that have to be phased out, for communities who have been dependent on those industries, and for populations uprooted by environmental disaster.

Currently, those displaced through environmental changes live in a legal limbo, without rights or recognition. As Vice President of Development and Operations at Salzburg Global Seminar Benjamin Glahn wrote in a post for the International Bar Association, ‘there are no frameworks, no conventions, no protocols and no specific guidelines that can provide protection and assistance for people crossing international borders because of climate change.’

We must do all we can to change this vulnerability of environmental migrants, by taming the climate crisis, offering them legal and economic security, and ensuring we have a world that puts the protection of human beings before the protection of borders.

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