The Platform

A Bangladeshi child repairs a dam after a cyclone devastated his area in 2021. (Rehman Asad)

Climate-induced migration is causing significant socio-economic and political upheavals in South Asia.

When we raise the issue of climate change, we instantly visualize rising sea levels, melting glaciers, floods, droughts, and extreme heat waves. We also explore how the climate crisis disrupts socio-economic stability, compromises state security, and causes human suffering. However, we rarely mention climate-induced migration in our discourse on climate change, often dismissing it as a trivial issue.

Although South Asian countries have yet to deal with this critical issue fully, the danger of climate migration is fast approaching this region. By 2050, a staggering 62 million individuals will face displacement due to the lack of sustainable and efficient solutions. The subcontinent will experience internal and cross-border migration, overpopulation in urban areas, competition for scarce resources, and socio-political instability.

In Bangladesh, as climate change worsens, the banks of major rivers and the coastlines of the Bay of Bengal erode over time. Numerous people have lost their livelihoods and homes as river and coastal erosion sweep away their agricultural land and houses. Consequently, displaced people have no choice but to relocate to cities. Today, the rise of slums has overcrowded major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that almost 70% of Dhaka’s slum dwellers moved to the city due to climatic disorders. Approximately four million people now reside in these slums, with the majority having previously experienced the impact of the climate crisis.

Coastal districts, including Khulna, Barisal, and Bhola, experience the greatest impact from climate disruptions. The escalation of salinity, frequent coastal flooding, and severe cyclones have compelled residents to abandon their native lands. As a result, many climate-induced migrants from these districts inhabit Dhaka’s shanties. Previously, those living in poverty settled in shanties to earn better wages. However, the situation has transformed as climate change has displaced people in the coastal districts, forcing them to relocate to Dhaka permanently. If the destruction of coastlines continues, a quarter of Bangladesh’s landmass will be submerged by 2050, displacing approximately 20 million people.

Without feasible remedies, the surge in climate-induced migrants threatens to overwhelm urban regions. Bangladesh has already confronted significant challenges due to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Therefore, Bangladesh must robustly address its concerns to the world before it’s too late.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is one of the most climate-vulnerable nations on Earth. Water shortages, heat waves, floods, and a shifting monsoon pattern have all had a devastating impact on Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Consequently, Pakistan’s regional socio-economic infrastructure is in dire condition, inducing urban-rural migration. Human traffickers see climate-induced migration as an opportunity to prey on vulnerable populations. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to climate-induced trafficking and are coerced into forced labor and sexual exploitation.

In 2023, the U.S. State Department reported that human trafficking directly affected approximately 23,000 Pakistanis. Women and children make up the bulk of those affected. However, the real figure may be several times greater. The United Nations expressed deep concern, noting that women and children are three times more susceptible to climate-induced trafficking. Yet, the Pakistani government has to take strong measures.

In 2022, Pakistan experienced its most catastrophic deluge of the 21st century, displacing 33 million people. Eighty percent of those individuals were females lacking access to sanitation facilities and medication. Due to severe socio-economic repercussions caused by climatic disruptions, impoverished parents resorted to arranging child marriages or trading their daughters for food and money. These scenarios highlight Pakistan’s dilemma in handling climate change and its impacts, such as trafficking and internal migration.

Since 2014, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been fostering ultranationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment. This stance has propagated throughout India, with Assam state being no exception. To provoke the majority of Hindus against Muslims, the BJP has depicted Muslims as outsiders who took shelter in the state as climate migrants.

Muslims in Assam speak Bengali as their main dialect. However, the BJP is inciting Assamese-speaking Hindus to degrade Muslims by disseminating religious and linguistic differences. Similarly, Assam’s dominant Bodo tribe believes that Bangladeshis have historically migrated to Assam from the climatically vulnerable eastern districts of Bangladesh. Muslim migrants driven by climate change seek to settle in Assam due to the state’s abundant natural resources. Consequently, BJP nationalists label Muslims as “infiltrators.”

In recent years, intolerance against Muslims has spiked in Assam. Communal riots and ethnic confrontations have intensified between the Bodos and Muslims. However, the BJP government consistently blames Muslims, or “illegal Bangladeshis,” for the state’s instability. Despite India’s lack of specific data on the number of climate migrants from Bangladesh, the government securitizes Muslims who have lived in Assam for decades as “aliens.” This is an example of the BJP’s strategy of escalating the Hindu-Muslim divide to solidify its control over Assam.

The industrialized nations of the Global North should be held liable for climate change on Earth. They generate 92% of global carbon emissions. Today’s climate-induced migration crisis in South Asia provides a glimpse of their impact. However, the Global North has not demonstrated a strong desire to combat climate change. Rather than lowering carbon emissions, wealthy countries have implemented unsustainable policies like carbon trading and pricing. They now recommend that South Asian countries embrace climate-induced migrants through comprehensive urban development plans. Instead of taking on responsibilities, industrialized nations encourage internal migration to increase urban populations.

Additionally, the Global North appears oblivious to the spillover effects of climate-induced migration, such as human trafficking, communal unrest, and conflicts over scarce resources. The continuation of such conditions will jeopardize South Asia’s socio-economic and political stability. Therefore, South Asian leaders should be more vocal regarding climate-induced migration. If they neglect this issue, an apocalyptic event will doom the region.

Ashiq Iqbal Jishad is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Dhaka. His research interests include defense, immigration, Transatlantic relations, Eurasia, the European Union, and NATO.