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We May All be Refugees

climate refugees
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As our planet reels from the myriad challenges posed by climate change it is important to consider how definitions of who is, and who is not a refugee, are being reframed. While India has been well able to manage the refugee crises of the past, climate change is calamitous and presents entirely new challenges in dealing with security, well-being, and displacement.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol that articulate the definitions and obligations of host countries to people facing persecution.  However, it is no stranger to hosting refugees. Since its founding India has managed large and complex refugee crises unilaterally. 

India’s Independence was marred by the Partition violence of 1947 during which 14.5 million people migrated, amidst great violence, between the newly established countries of India and Pakistan.  According to the 1951 Census, 7.249 million refugees, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, migrated to India from Pakistan with almost the same number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan.  The majority crossed Punjab but 3.5 million Hindus moved from East Bengal to India.  

Refugees from East Pakistan in 1971

India has hosted many other groups of refugees since that time.  Most of us are familiar with the Tibetan refugee settlements that existed in many parts of the country since 1959.  Perhaps less well known is that India has accepted Chakma refugees in the early 1960s and many more refugees from then East Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. In May 1971, 1.5 million refugees sought asylum in India and by November that year the number swelled to ten million, with more than half coming to West Bengal, as those fleeing found both a familiar language and culture to fall back on. Indians were very sympathetic to their plight. 

Refugees were registered soon after their entry and the Government established 825 camps in seven states as well as nineteen central camps to tend to their needs.  By early 1972 almost nine million refugees were repatriated. It is estimated that 11.3 million Bangladeshi Hindu refugees currently live in India, primarily in West Bengal and the Northeast states. Most sought refuge in India between 1964 and 2013. India has also extended assistance to Tamil refugees from the 1980s who fled the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Rohingya refugees have been coming to India since 1970, fleeing persecution in Myanmar.  The military crackdown on Rohingyas led 730,000 people to seek security in Bangladesh.  Hundreds and thousands fled Myanmar in 2017.  Much fewer Rohingya fled to India.  Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 40,000 Rohingyas in India of which 20,000 or more are registered with the UN Human Rights Commission.  The Indian Government’s attempt to pass the Citizen Amendment Act (2019) made these refugees who are Muslim, more contentious. India has been criticized for attempting to deport these refugees rather than offering them asylum.  

What India must plan for going forward is the increasing number of climate refugees.  A World Bank study estimates that by 2050, 143 million people will be displaced by climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America: forty million from South Asia.  

A landmark ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (2016) states, just like in a war or persecution, forcibly returning a person where their life is threatened due to climate change is a violation of human rights.  They are called “environmental migrants,” “climate change-induced migrants,” and “environmentally displaced persons.” However, the ruling makes a clear distinction between climate refugees and migrants. Migrants leave their homes in search of better livelihood opportunities or for social or political reasons.  Migrants can and do return home. Refugees are unable to return home due to war, persecution, or violence.  Similarly, those facing climate change are unable to return to their land due to natural events such as cyclones, salinisation, sea level rise, extreme heat waves, loss of livelihoods, biodiversity, food, and water.

Rohingya refugees have been coming to India since 1970, fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The military crackdown on Rohingyas led 730,000 people to seek security in Bangladesh. Hundreds and thousands fled Myanmar in 2017. Much fewer Rohingya fled to India. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 40,000 Rohingyas in India of which 20,000 or more are registered with the UN Human Rights Commission.

Climate refugees are already at our doorstep. Bhola island, the largest island of Bangladesh, situated at the mouth of the Meghna River, was half submerged by rising sea levels in 1995. The rising waters devastated the lives of 500,000 people who became homeless. Scientists predict that Bangladesh will lose 17% of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change. This could result in twenty million climate refugees from Bangladesh. The Indian side of the Sundarbans delta has been a destination for climate refugees from neighboring islands. Sagar island is currently facing rising sea levels. Swathes of the Odisha coast are getting submerged due to sea level rise, with Kendrapura most under risk amongst five other coastal districts facing similar threats due to global warming.

A dried up wetland in Brazil

While coastal areas are very much at risk there are a host of other environmental threats India faces that could result in the permanent displacement of millions of people. India is home to sixty-three of the one hundred most polluted cities in the world. Seventy percent of surface water in India is unfit for consumption. Food and water shortages are exacerbated by climate change resulting in flash floods, extended heat waves and drought. Waste management is another significant environmental challenge. Waste plastic pollutes rivers and streams threatening biodiversity. The loss of forest cover is a driver of biodiversity decline in India. Since the start of this century India has lost 19% of its total tree cover.  

The United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 103 million displaced people worldwide: 53.2 million displaced internally, 32.5 refugees, 4.9 million asylum seekers and 5.3 million in need of protection.  As we honor the resilience of refugees on World Refugee Day (June 20th), we must confront and mitigate the climate crises that threaten to permanently displace far greater numbers of people, devastating their lives and livelihoods.

Images courtesy:, WFP

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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