Stories of climate migrants in Khulna city
What thought comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘migrant’? A simple Google search would reveal that a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions. Here it can be understood that the inspiration behind migration is the hope of finding better jobs and living conditions.
But it takes a whole new form when severe climatic conditions start becoming the dominant driver of human migration. When that happens, finding jobs or better living conditions become a lesser concern for the migrant and survival becomes a vital priority.
Since the 90s horrific severe cyclonic storms have resulted in many families from the southernmost districts of the Khulna division to migrate to Khulna City. But the irreparable havoc caused by the 2007 Cyclone Sidr and 2009 Cyclone Aila, gave the term “horrific” a whole new meaning for these people. These cyclones together destroyed millions of households, killed people in thousands, and their oceanic surges made thousands of acres of fertile crop fields practically barren to a large extent.
How the urge of survival triggers the necessity of permanent migration becomes more apparent when concentration is given towards the horrifying stories of the migrant people. Rawshan Ara (35), a climate migrant currently living in one of the slums near Khulna Railway Station had the misfortune of facing the devastations of Cyclone Aila on May 25, 2009, first-hand at Shyamnagar, Satkhira.
She and her family helplessly watched their homes and properties getting destroyed by the cyclone and washed away by its tidal surges. Her family of eight floated for kilometres on broken tree branches for about a day before getting rescued and taken into a cyclone shelter. Having lost all of their properties, they migrated permanently to Khulna City and took shelter in one of the slums along the Khulna Railway Station; and since then, they never managed to get out of extreme poverty.
The same cyclone destroyed the dreams of Aminul Islam (37), another climate migrant currently living in the same slum as Rawshan Ara. He and his family faced the destruction of Cyclone Aila in Dacope, Khulna as the cyclone washed his house and farm animals away to annihilation while submerging his 1.3-acre crop field in saline oceanic water, making it mostly barren. Though he had dreams of buying more crop-field but had to spend every last penny of his savings to permanently relocate his family to Khulna City.
Jahanara Begum (50), another climate migrant of the same slum area, also saw how Cyclone Aila destroyed her ancestral home back in Koyra, Khulna. She had to manage her family of seven to permanently migrate to Khulna City all by herself as her husband was away working as a migrant worker in Khulna City.
Her settlement process in Khulna City was a little bit easier than most other migrant families as her husband was already living in the city but the horrifying journey of migration, the fear of having her children getting lost during the journey, and the memory of her home getting washed away by the cyclone still haunts her constantly. Many other families had to bear the same ill fate as they also were forced to migrate to Khulna City from its surrounding districts due to the impacts of the cyclone.
The horrors of these migrant families do not end with them just being relocated to Khulna City as a 2018 study reveals that these displaced people are at increased risk of health issues from unhygienic and overcrowded living conditions with water and sanitation-related problems (Rahaman, Rahman, Bahauddin, Khan, and Hassan, 2018).
A few Nongovernmental Organization (NGOs) have helped build small sanitation facilities for the slum dwellers but the inhabitants live in constant fear of eviction as the slum land legally belongs to the Khulna Railway Station authority.
The migrant issue in Khulna City was not that acute during the early 90s. But with its increasing population, rising frequency of intense cyclones at the Bay of Bengal due to climate change, and the flock of additional incoming migrants due to the impacts of those cyclonic events are making the overall migrant situation a legitimate crisis in the city, and the recent cyclones like Fani, Bulbul and Yaas are only making the situation worse.
The ongoing migrant related crisis in Khulna City and the horrifying stories of thousands of migrant families living within the city show how deep, complicated and overreaching the impacts of climate change can be. The migrant community cannot be pushed back to their ancestral lands as those are still getting affected by intense cyclones annually due to the impacts of climate change.
On the other hand, the city barely can provide appropriate accommodation and necessary opportunities to these migrants to lead decent lives. Perhaps more voluntary private initiatives are necessary to mitigate this crisis. Small land donations, scholarships for the migrant children, extensive employment workshops and the introduction of small quotas at certain sectors for the migrants may bring particular effective changes to their decade-long predicaments.
Md Tahseen Ahmed is working with Youth Climate Lab (YCL) and ICCCAD under Climate Resilience Collective Pilot as a Youth Associate, his research interest lies in climate migration. Can be reached at [email protected].