By: Shobha Shukla

By 2050, up to 1 billion people could be driven from their homes due to the worsening impacts of climate change, according to the United Nations, exacerbating growing tensions as increasing numbers of governments close their borders to immigration. 

Both sudden- and slow-onset weather events affect the migrants, who face numerous challenges around their livelihood, safety, mobility and access to health and social services. They are also impacted when climate changes affect their families back home, as they have to then provide increased financial support for their families to cope with the aftermath of such events.

However, these issues are not properly documented and migrants’ voices are often not much heard. A workshop on understanding climate change and its impacts on migrants and their families was organized by the International Migrants Alliance (IMA) during the recently concluded International Solidarity Conference on the Rights of Climate Migrants, titled “Beyond Labels, Beyond Borders,” held in the Philippines by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, IMA, Kalikasan and the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development.

A recent World Bank report points out that particularly vulnerable areas are Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, which together represent 55 percent of the developing world’s population. The investigation raised fears that “climate change will push tens of millions of people to migrate within their countries by 2050.”

Without concrete climate and development action, the subject of discussions at the United Nations this week, more than 143 million people in those three regions alone, could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate change. 

The political impact of those kinds of movements is likely to be incalculable. Already, as Asia Sentinel reported on Sept. 22, governments across the world have reacted negatively to migrant flows at their borders. US President Donald Trump has made repelling migrants the single most issue of his presidency. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to expel millions. Italy’s government nearly fell in September over the issue. 

The poorest and most climate-vulnerable areas are expected to be hardest hit, according to the World Bank report. These trends, alongside the emergence of “hotspots” of climate in- and out-migration, will have major implications for climate-sensitive sectors and for the adequacy of infrastructure and social support systems. 

Here is a snapshot of some examples of the causes and consequences of climate-induced migrations shared by the participants.

Rising Sea Levels

Anisur Rahman Khan from Bangladesh, a returning migrant from Saudi Arabia, said an estimated 15 million Bangladeshis will migrate internally and externally by 2050 due to climate change. One major cause for internal migration in Bangladesh is the rising sea level.

Statistics show that rising sea levels will wipe out more land in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. As a result, rice production is expected to drop by 10 percent and wheat production by 30 percent by 2050. Many coastal areas will be submerged, forcing more people to migrate from rural to urban areas, which are already bursting at the seams. Food, housing, and drinking water insecurity are the major emerging problems that the government will have to deal with.

Environmental Mismanagement

Reverend Emmanuel Chikoya, a representative from the Council of Churches in Zambia, pointed out that nature has blessed Zambia with huge deposits of minerals, which has attracted investors for extractive mining activities which in turn has led to a massive reduction in forest cover due to felling of trees, contamination of groundwater, making it unsafe for human consumption, and serious health hazards. Unplanned construction of dams is drying up the rivers. Even those who sacrificed their ancestral land for the construction of electricity plants are not the beneficiaries of the electricity generated. 

All this has resulted in large scale displacement of people to areas which do not have even the basic necessities. To top it all, local communities lack the knowledge and expertise to negotiate with the multinational corporations, and more often than not are taken for a ride.

Decreasing annual rainfall has adversely impacted food grain production. Focus on the production of crops like tobacco instead of food crops like maize has added to the problem. “All religious bodies, including the Church, can play an important role in protecting the climate, Chikoya said. In Zambia, the Council of Churches believes in helping people to live a dignified life on this earth, rather than preparing them for a life after death. It is the primary mandate of the Church that all human beings must be good stewards of the natural resources given to us by God and use them responsibly. 

Increase in agricultural production has to go hand in hand with soil and environmental protection. Religion must not only remove myths and wrong perceptions but also use the principle of ‘love one another’ to promote good practices, clean energy, and clean environment.”

Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Meltdown

Luisito Pongos from Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) Japan who facilitated the workshop, said one of the worst natural disasters that Japan experienced was an earthquake in 2011 that hit its northeast region – the rice bowl of Japan – followed by a devastating tsunami that also led to a nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, resulting in an estimated 22,000 deaths and affecting more than 70,000 people, mostly migrants, 9,000 of them Filipinos. A large majority were marriage migrants, women of neighboring countries legally married to Japanese. Those who survived faced an acute shortage of food and shelter. Many lost their documents, resulting in losing their jobs and/or not being able to go back to their home country because they did not have their regular travel documents.

Even though the affected were relocated to safer areas, the disasters affected the livelihoods of many migrants settled in Japan, thereby also affecting their families in their home countries.

One silver lining has been the closure of several nuclear power plants. Currently, only nine of the 54 nuclear power plants are in operation and the country is moving towards cleaner alternative energy sources, thanks to a strong people’s movement.

Human Activities Abet Natural Disasters

Indonesia is a disaster-prone country. In 2018 alone, according to Eni Lestari and Iweng Karsiweng, the country was hit by five tsunamis and earthquakes. But no government support or compensation was given to the affected families to rebuild their lives. As many migrants working abroad came from three of the affected areas, it put them under additional pressure to send money to help their families.

Apart from adverse weather events, multinational corporations are adding to the problems including land grabbing. More than 300,000 hectares of forests have been burned down to make way for other lucrative businesses. This has led to high pollution levels resulting in severe respiratory health problems in the communities. The construction of numerous electric power plants is destroying the marine life of the oceans and forcing fisherfolk to migrate elsewhere. Also, large scale conversion of farmlands into palm oil plantations has depleted the water level and made surrounding areas dry, resulting in forced migration of people.

Typhoons

In 2013, the Philippines suffered one of its greatest natural disasters when Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban and neighboring cities. More than 7,360 were dead or missing and 4.1 million were displaced. Some of the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan had families living in Cavite. After Haiyan, the survivors’ families in Cavite planned to go back to Tacloban and help their relatives with reconstruction and rehabilitation. However, fearing the loss of his workforce, the Mayor of Rosario, a municipality in Cavite, offered to relocate the Haiyan survivors to Cavite instead. Isla Paglaum, a beach resort, was converted into a relocation site for the survivors. As of 2018, there are some 150 families living in this area together with a few families coming from other parts of Cavite.

The Way Forward 

There is an urgent need to conduct and document evidence-based studies on the effects of climate change on internal and external migration, and to engage with governments at local and regional levels to come up with sustainable solutions that address the causes and effects of climate migration.

More often than not, human activities like uncontrolled mining, faulty urban planning, depletion of forest cover, unplanned construction of dams, are all precursors to worsening weather conditions like droughts, floods, landslides, water, and air pollution. Political decisions often override the interests and safety of the majority.

Shobha Shukla is the editor of Citizen News Service