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Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

At present, 1.4 crore people in India are displaced due to environmental disruptions, the report said.

Updated
Climate Change
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Climate refugees: Environmental disturbances have been the catalyst for millions of displacement movements all over the world.</p></div>
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With the memory of the destruction caused by Cyclone Yass and Amphan etched in our minds, the plight of people from the Sunderbans finding voice in national and international reports and the deluge on the western coast during this monsoon, the effects of climate change are laid bare for us to see.

Environmental disturbances have been the catalyst for millions of displacement movements all over the world, and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has been closely watching these shifts in habitat, and recording climate change-driven migration for over a decade.

As per IDMC data, an average of 26.4 million persons around the world have been forcibly displaced by environmental hazards such as floods, windstorms, droughts or earthquakes.

However, even with the enormity of recorded numbers and bleak forecasts, climate refugees are not yet recognised in national and international law, and therefore, lack policies required for their rehabilitation and protection.

Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

  1. 1. Who is Referred to as a 'Climate Refugee'?

    At present, international law fails to provide a clear definition of climate refugees. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol had defined the term “refugee” following the second world war.

    Consequently, the status of refugee was defined upon the consideration that “the realities of conflict, violence and persecution continued to cause displacement” and thus, fell short of recognising the displacement catalysed due to climate change.

    In 2002, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) expert Essam El-Hinnawi had offered a definition of environmental refugees and termed them as "people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life".

    Expand
  2. 2. Just How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    In December 2020, a report titled 'Costs of climate inaction: displacement and distress migration’ assessed that over 4.5 crore people will be forced to migrate from their homes in India by 2050 due to climate disasters including floods, droughts, and cyclones.

    Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    (Photo: Shruti Mathur)

    The report was based on a study conducted by International agencies ActionAid International and Climate Action Network South Asia, news agency PTI had reported.

    At present, 1.4 crore people in India are displaced due to environmental disruptions, the report said.

    Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    (Photo: Shruti Mathur)

    Meanwhile, the data documented by the IDMC brings the non-recognition of climate displacements into sharp relief – In India, over 38 lakh (3,856,000) new displacements took place due to environmental disasters in 2020, which is 989 times more than the 3,900 displacements by conflicts.

    ‘New displacements’ here refers to the number of displacement movements in a year, with figures including individuals who were displaced more than once.

    In this way, new displacement does not directly correspond to the number of people displaced.

    However, the data also demonstrated that while 473,000 people were internally displaced in India due to conflict as of December 2020, over 9 lakh (9,29,000) people were living in internal displacement due to environmental disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and drought.
    Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    (Photo: Shruti Mathur)

    As per the IDMC reports, in the last 10 years (2011-2020), average number of climate-driven new displacements were over 33.7 lakh (33,78,000).

    In comparison to this, the average number of displacement movements due to conflict were found to be around 1.6 lakh (1,68,000).

    Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    (Photo: Shruti Mathur)

    The sharp contrast between conflict-driven displacement and displacement due to environmental hazards in the last 10 years is shown below:

    Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

    (Photo: Shruti Mathur)

    Expand
  3. 3. Where Do We Stand on Policy When it Comes to Climate Refugees?  

    Often, as is reflected in the IDMC data, displaced populations migrate within their countries, in which case they are referred to as 'internally displaced" and are protected under domestic laws.

    However, the absence of a uniform policy for internally displaced persons also lends itself to the broader ignorance towards the movement induced by climate change.

    This is muddled even further when people migrate to new lands and cross borders, often to nations that are devoid of frameworks for the rehabilitation and protection of climate refugees.

    Presently, the enormity of internal displacements suggests that climate-driven movement will only worsen as the world grapples with an escalating climate emergency.

    The UN Global Compact on Migration (2018) provides a blueprint for people affected by the climate crisis aiding in "more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation", however, this too is non-binding.

    Expand
  4. 4. The Situation in India

    India's increasing vulnerability towards the environmental crisis was evidenced this year in the aftermath of the cyclones which ravaged Maharashtra and West Bengal, and widespread flooding that ensued with the onset of monsoon.

    A report by Forbes India underlined that recently, the last two inhabited islands in the Sunderbans—Mousuni and Ghoramara—were evacuated due to rising sea levels and cyclones, which were rapidly leading to the submersion of habitable lands.

    The professor of oceanography at Jadavpur University Dr. Sugata Hazra was quoted in the report saying that, “Though research and media accounts have made the plight of the environmental migrants from the vanishing islands of the Sundarbans well-known in the last few decades, policy responses have been inadequate. There is no mechanism to recognise, record and register forced migrants, let alone a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate them.”

    With victims of climate change being denied the status of refugee even today, one of the most pertinent issue that arise is India might witness a large-scale influx of migrants from neighbouring countries (such as Bangladesh) as sea levels continue to rise.

    Without comprehensive national and international policies, the human cost of the climate crisis will not only be exacerbated owing to mismanagement, but will be in danger of being entirely overlooked.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Who is Referred to as a 'Climate Refugee'?

At present, international law fails to provide a clear definition of climate refugees. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol had defined the term “refugee” following the second world war.

Consequently, the status of refugee was defined upon the consideration that “the realities of conflict, violence and persecution continued to cause displacement” and thus, fell short of recognising the displacement catalysed due to climate change.

In 2002, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) expert Essam El-Hinnawi had offered a definition of environmental refugees and termed them as "people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life".

Just How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

In December 2020, a report titled 'Costs of climate inaction: displacement and distress migration’ assessed that over 4.5 crore people will be forced to migrate from their homes in India by 2050 due to climate disasters including floods, droughts, and cyclones.

Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

(Photo: Shruti Mathur)

The report was based on a study conducted by International agencies ActionAid International and Climate Action Network South Asia, news agency PTI had reported.

At present, 1.4 crore people in India are displaced due to environmental disruptions, the report said.

Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

(Photo: Shruti Mathur)

Meanwhile, the data documented by the IDMC brings the non-recognition of climate displacements into sharp relief – In India, over 38 lakh (3,856,000) new displacements took place due to environmental disasters in 2020, which is 989 times more than the 3,900 displacements by conflicts.

‘New displacements’ here refers to the number of displacement movements in a year, with figures including individuals who were displaced more than once.

In this way, new displacement does not directly correspond to the number of people displaced.

However, the data also demonstrated that while 473,000 people were internally displaced in India due to conflict as of December 2020, over 9 lakh (9,29,000) people were living in internal displacement due to environmental disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and drought.
Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

(Photo: Shruti Mathur)

As per the IDMC reports, in the last 10 years (2011-2020), average number of climate-driven new displacements were over 33.7 lakh (33,78,000).

In comparison to this, the average number of displacement movements due to conflict were found to be around 1.6 lakh (1,68,000).

Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

(Photo: Shruti Mathur)

The sharp contrast between conflict-driven displacement and displacement due to environmental hazards in the last 10 years is shown below:

Displacement Explained: How Many Climate Refugees Does India Have?

(Photo: Shruti Mathur)

ADVERTISEMENT

Where Do We Stand on Policy When it Comes to Climate Refugees?  

Often, as is reflected in the IDMC data, displaced populations migrate within their countries, in which case they are referred to as 'internally displaced" and are protected under domestic laws.

However, the absence of a uniform policy for internally displaced persons also lends itself to the broader ignorance towards the movement induced by climate change.

This is muddled even further when people migrate to new lands and cross borders, often to nations that are devoid of frameworks for the rehabilitation and protection of climate refugees.

Presently, the enormity of internal displacements suggests that climate-driven movement will only worsen as the world grapples with an escalating climate emergency.

The UN Global Compact on Migration (2018) provides a blueprint for people affected by the climate crisis aiding in "more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation", however, this too is non-binding.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Situation in India

India's increasing vulnerability towards the environmental crisis was evidenced this year in the aftermath of the cyclones which ravaged Maharashtra and West Bengal, and widespread flooding that ensued with the onset of monsoon.

A report by Forbes India underlined that recently, the last two inhabited islands in the Sunderbans—Mousuni and Ghoramara—were evacuated due to rising sea levels and cyclones, which were rapidly leading to the submersion of habitable lands.

The professor of oceanography at Jadavpur University Dr. Sugata Hazra was quoted in the report saying that, “Though research and media accounts have made the plight of the environmental migrants from the vanishing islands of the Sundarbans well-known in the last few decades, policy responses have been inadequate. There is no mechanism to recognise, record and register forced migrants, let alone a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate them.”

With victims of climate change being denied the status of refugee even today, one of the most pertinent issue that arise is India might witness a large-scale influx of migrants from neighbouring countries (such as Bangladesh) as sea levels continue to rise.

Without comprehensive national and international policies, the human cost of the climate crisis will not only be exacerbated owing to mismanagement, but will be in danger of being entirely overlooked.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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