Abu Siddique will be counted twice in this year’s refugee statistics. He’ll be counted once for fleeing Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh. And a second time for moving to escape the monsoon flooding that followed.
That probably won’t be the last time he gets added to the statistics. He explained his situation to the UN Refugee Agency: ‘We are moving because during the monsoon the water rises very high here. Water rises to our necks when it rains.’ The Refugee Agency is helping some families in this situation move to a new camp. Others will have to fend for themselves. Once Siddique has moved, he’ll be living with his family in a temporary shelter, perhaps safe from monsoon flooding but vulnerable to a cyclone strikes on Bangladesh’s exposed coastline. Almost anyone would want to move on somewhere safer, and to somewhere with more prospects for work and settlement.
New figures reveal that 30 million people were forced from their homes by conflict and disasters last year. The bulk of these were associated with weather-related disasters – floods, hurricanes and droughts. As climate change begins to bite, these figures are only likely to get worse.
Delving into some of these crises reveals worrying connections between displacement caused by natural disasters and that caused by conflict and violence. Cases like Abu Siddique’s reveal that it is becoming harder to untangle modern crises: he is a refugee fleeing violence and ethnic cleansing; he has also been displaced by a disaster. And he will probably move again, perhaps driven by another disaster or perhaps to settle somewhere more permanent and find work.
Displacement crises are now interacting with climate-driven disasters in new and troubling ways, and I am often asked to comment on whether particular refugee situations are influenced by climate change. There is often a desire to see the fingerprints of climate change in any catastrophe since linking climate change to growing humanitarian situations might bring about some action on the environment.
To the question of if there are connections between the Rohingya refugee situation and climate change, our position has so far been that there is no real link between the two.
The reasons behind the Rohingya displacement have everything to do with politics, and little to do with the environment, climate change or natural disasters – that is, until the Rohingya reached Bangladesh’s vulnerable coastline.
With the unfolding monsoon and cyclone seasons in Bangladesh, there is now a more complex link between the wider situation and climate change. For the Rohingya have moved into some of the worst impacted areas.
Many fled from Rakhine state, and are now spread along the coast around Cox’s Bazar – recognised as one of the most climate vulnerable locations in Bangladesh, and possibly one of the most vulnerable in the world.
Bangladesh is exposed to a number of climate impacts – sea level rise in the Delta region, cyclone strikes and altered monsoon rain. These are already creating huge levels of migration within Bangladesh. As sea levels eat away at the land in the vulnerable delta, people abandon work in agriculture and head to the capital city, Dhaka.
Thousands of people have moved from Bhola Island to a slum in Dhaka they have named Bhola Slum after their former home, driven by a combination of erosion worsened by sea level rise and cyclones. There used to be two way flow between the two Bholas, but as conditions have worsened in the delta, this has slowed. ‘We don’t go back home in the holidays as there is no home that we can return to’ A-Amin told IRIN, the humanitarian news agency. Thousands of people make the same move.
Increasingly this kind of migration is seen as a potential form of climate change adaptation, for some places, like Bhola Island, will be impossible to protect. The best option is therefore to migrate.
For some this turns into reality, and they find better work and their lives improve. But others find themselves trapped in urban (rather than rural) poverty. ‘[If we had stayed] I would have been able to take care of my health. We would have had our land to cultivate so our living conditions would be better,’ Beliks, a Bhola Slum resident, explained to researchers from the United Nations University. Her family moved from the island over 40 years ago, before she was born. But she said she still regards Bhola Island as her real home. Since Belkis’s family made their move, hundreds of thousands have made a similar journey.
One of those who may be making this journey is Abu Siddique and his family. For them, now in a camp at risk of flooding, cyclones strikes and erosion, the prospects of a new life in the city will become increasingly appealing. If the political situation in Myanmar doesn’t allow them to return, many Rohingya refugees will begin looking at Dhaka. If their original displacement had its roots in Myanmar’s politics and the driving force was violence, their next moves will also be shaped by the climate.