Across the world people migrate into cities with the aim of improving their lives. Cities in Africa and Asia are growing faster than anywhere else in the world. This is usually good for the migrants; cities are dynamic places and living in them brings opportunities that people don’t have in rural areas. This is also good for cities; one of the reasons that cities are such dynamic, economically successful places is because people want to move to them. Cities that stop attracting migrants, like Detroit in the US, face particular problems of their own.
When populations grow rapidly without proper planning, this creates difficulties for the individuals concerned; we don’t currently know the full implications of migration in these situations. Over the last two years, we have been conducting a research project to investigate these issues. This research has taken place in Dhaka as well as Colombo (Sri Lanka), Hargeisa (Somaliland) and Harare (Zimbabwe). Of these, the city of Dhaka is the fastest growing.
There is widespread concern about migration resulting from climate change. Current research rejects a direct connection here; no one moves as a direct result of climate change. Migration is caused by a whole range of factors, many of which are themselves influenced by climate change. One of the most important factors explaining migration to cities is loss of livelihood. For example, in Somaliland, we have interviewed people forced to move to the city of Hargesia after their herds were killed in the 2011 drought. In Dhaka, it is common for people to move to the city after they have lost land to riverine erosion, itself exacerbated by climate change.
Those who are forced to move under these circumstances typically have very little money. This means that, when they reach the cities, they have to live in the cheapest places they can find. This is often on land that is already extremely overcrowded, owned by other people, in areas of housing constructed from temporary materials, with very limited access to public services such as health or educational facilities or even basic sanitation. Such areas are frequently labelled slums. In each of the four cities in this study, including Dhaka, we selected three such locations to conduct research. Beyond the slum label, very little about these locations is well understood. They are often not accurately mapped and census data is not available. We have conducted one round of surveys of these neighbourhoods and there are clear similarities between cities and across the neighbourhoods in Dhaka.
The three neighbourhoods in Dhaka cover a variety of different situations from long established slums to pavement dwellers. They vary in size, but collectively accommodate more than 10,000 people. Large majorities of people in each of these three locations were born outside the city, although most have been living in Dhaka for more than a decade. Despite that length of time living in the city, almost none of the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods own their own land. Their access to basic services is similarly limited. More than 85% have no water supply or toilet in the household, almost 90% have no bank account and so no savings. A very large proportion of people had experienced forced eviction within Dhaka, as high as 63% in one neighbourhood.
Despite these obvious problems, people living in these neighbourhoods made an equally obvious contribution to the life of the city. The large majority of people in all three locations reported that they had done more than 21 days of work in the previous month, that is more than full time work. The most common occupations were labourers, rickshaw-pullers and domestic workers. Although a large minority (36%) of the pavement dwellers described themselves as ‘not coping’, this was much lower in the other two neighbourhoods, where a third of people described themselves as “doing well”. Contrary to the popular imaginations, slums are inhabited by industrious people who see clear advantages in these neighbourhoods: Affordability and accessibility were the stand out answers to what attracted them. Unsurprisingly, only 3.3% mentioned “environment” as an attraction.
People in these neighbourhoods are not isolated. More than half of interviewees reported that they have relations living outside Dhaka, but in the poorest areas they had not seen them in over three years. Despite their obvious difficulties in the city, only a small minority of people (8%) reported receiving any support from family members living elsewhere. Similarly, tiny minorities in each location reported that they had received any other assistance from external sources. These individuals are essentially on their own, which explains their focus on work and industriousness.
Yet despite this apparent resilience, people living in slums are extremely uncertain about the future. In each neighbourhood significant majorities reported a desire to leave the neighbourhood, although they doubted that they would ever be able to and they reported that money was the biggest barrier to them doing so. Large minorities expressed a fear of forced eviction from their current homes. This is a major concern; people feel trapped, meaning that they would like to move on but do not think they are currently able to. The most common expectation is that if they leave it will be against their will, not at a time of their choosing. This relates to very high levels of reported anxiety.
The growing population of these neighbourhoods presents a challenge to urban governance. People living in slums are working hard, and large proportions of them are able to list the attractions that the neighbourhood holds for them. Nevertheless, they have aspirations to move elsewhere but fear that they may be trapped in situations which they had hoped would only be temporary. Engaging with the context of climate change which contributed to the factors forcing people to move into Dhaka is beyond the capacity of any individual national government.
Yet addressing the situation in which people find themselves once they move to Dhaka is much more obviously within reach of national and city authorities.
Michael Collyer is a Professor of Geography at the University of Sussex, UK