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Environmental migration and climate change in the Indian Ocean littoral

  • Published at 08:13 pm October 22nd, 2021
Photo: Pixabay

Climate change-induced migration is a growing concern. It demands engagement with the grassroots community and common men’s perspectives alongside expert opinion, as it cannot be understood from one single procedural perspective

Migration of people triggered by ‘extreme weather events has emerged as one of the most challenging outcomes of global environmental change. Increasing sea level rise, unpredictable rainfall pattern, periodic drought conditions, recurrent cyclone, flooding, and river-bank erosion – all these extreme weather events are menacing livelihoods – often forcing the affected population to move out of their natal home. 

According to a World Bank report (2018), there will be approximately 140 million internal climate migrants by 2050 in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. It is true that linking climate change and migration unswervingly is challenging as migration and mobility are generally multiclausal. There are numerous reasons for people to be on the move. There are many drivers of migration – social, political, economic, demographic and environmental - but climate change can affect all these factors, which is why it is regarded as a threat multiplier.

The term ‘climate refugee’ or ‘environmental refugee’ has emerged as a passionately debated topic in migration and development literature. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.” 

While this definition is very comprehensive and flexible to demonstrate the complex migration pattern even when it is environment driven, yet a legal definition is absent, several other semantics exist to categorize peoples’ movement in relation to environmental changes. 

There has been an increasing resurgence in the literature on climate change-related migration. Nonetheless, more brazen research is needed to examine how migrants overcome their ‘vulnerability’ and enhance their individual and collective agency to successfully deal with health and livelihood challenges in climate hotspot countries in the global south. Keeping this in mind a collaborative and trans-regional research project has been initiated to investigate the challenges faced by environmental refugees in four case study countries in the Indian Ocean littoral rim. 

The project entitled "Environmental Refugees: Climate, Health and Livelihood in the Indian Ocean World" – a consortium based on researchers from four Indian Ocean countries (India, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Mozambique) is sponsored by the US-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC). 

The study was originally commissioned in 2020 and has gathered some evidence during its planning phase (September 2020- August 2021), and it will continue to generate more knowledge during this uncertain Covid-19 times (September 2021 to August 2022) by putting to test a few key questions: (i) Is migrating out of disaster-prone areas the only way forward to mitigate climate change impact on society and economy? (ii) How do we place migrant agency and their social capital? (iii) What does vulnerability and resilience mean to them, and (iv) how can we learn from our shared cross-country experience of migrant lives. (v) How does migration affect the health and wellbeing of migrants? 

The project team comprises an interdisciplinary cohort of experts who will bring their skills and knowledge working with climate migrants on health, well-being and livelihood issues. In Bangladesh, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) has been working with migrants in Ersadnagar Slum of Dhaka and Sundarbans (Shyamnagar Area) to map community experience through PhotoVoice and Digital Diaries developed by community participants in the project as a participating organisation. 

PhotoVoice is a tool to collect general information about a community. Local people will take pictures through which they will demonstrate their reasons for migration, the problems they face during and after migration, the benefits from migration and such. 

After collecting a large amount of pictures from the community - the researcher will store them and ask the community persons who took the photos about the reasons behind it; this will also be asked to others of the community to determine whether the photos/ reasons behind the photos mean the same to them or not. This way the migration information of a community can be collected from a large group easily. 

The researcher will then prepare a report based on all the collected data achieved through the pictures and discussion. Digital Diary is a tool to collect more specific information on a particular issue from a particular group - it is more focused. 

Through Digital Diary, local people will be able to present their migration-related issues and there will be no interventions from the researcher. The local people will be able to freely share their problems. This is like a life diary; the migrants share their migration story through it. This is a long process - one person will share their story for 3 - 4 months, ensuring that no information is missing. 

Besides, during the Covid situation, the risk of collecting data from the field is mitigated by using these tools. Both PhotoVoice and Digital Diary will capture the general and specific issues related to migration from the selected communities and help raise voice from the frontline without any influencing factors from the researchers. 

Climate change-induced migration due to natural disasters is a growing concern. It demands engagement with the grassroots community and common men’s perspectives alongside expert opinion, as it cannot be understood from one single procedural perspective.  

This trans-regional collaborative research project aims to build a transdisciplinary, participatory community-driven driven research platform involving academic institutions and scholarly networks and governments, policy stakeholders, think tanks, and civil society actors. 

The proposed study equally spotlights the gendered narratives as climate change has a distinct impact on men and women. More broadly, the consortium aims to address the emerging climate change-related challenges by critically engaging with climate change-induced migration debates focusing on the Indian Ocean region from a south-south perspective.

Juel Mahmud is working in International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) as a Researcher, his research interest lies in Environmental Migration and GIS. Can be reached at ([email protected])

Samina Islam is working in International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) as a Junior Research Officer, Can be reached at ([email protected]

Dr Debojyoti Das is working in Sussex University as a Lecturer and Global Research Associate. His research interest lies in Sustainable development issues and Can be reached at [email protected]

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