Strategic Forecast 2020

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Strategic Forecast 2020
Climate Change: The New Refugees Paradox in South and East Asia in 2020

  Roshni Sharma

CWA Brief, February 2020

Climate change is a threat multiplier and in it, the issue of forced displacement and humanitarian crises beg solidarity and responsibility-sharing from different states in the international forum



If the last century was the ‘century of refugees’, this century is perhaps the worst of all times in terms of the rise in migration. The century is witnessing an emergence of a new group of refugees – the ‘climate refugees.’ Due to the absence of any universally accepted definition, this essay refers to the climate-induced’ migrants as ‘climate refugees’. The year 2018-19 marked an alarming increase of climate-induced migration. In 2018, 17.2 million people were displaced in 144 countries due to disaster (IDMC, 2019a). The first half of 2019 has been no different, as it witnessed seven million new internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to increase in disasters and more frequent extreme events.

This situation has now become a global phenomenon and is a grave concern for all the nations. However, different regions across the world have been affected differently. For instance, South and East Asia and the Pacific region have been the most affected of all regions. Within this region, Philippines, China and India recorded the highest number of disaster displacements. Countries across the globe have adopted different strategies to deal with these disasters which has been discussed in due course in the essay. The scope of this essay is limited to South and East Asian regions, highlighting the difference in terms of migration from other regions across the world. Since, nations within this region are more prone and vulnerable to climate change, they also witness extreme rise in the number of climate refugees. India alone recorded 2.8 million displaced people in 2018, which was a 100 per cent increase from the previous year. 

Extreme climatic conditions and the changes thereof have impacted the lives of millions. This essay is an attempt to identify and analyse some of the major trends that have emerged over the last two years in terms of the climate-induced migration, especially in the South and East Asian region. Through the lens of the identified trends of 2018-19, the essay would attempt to forecast the likeable trends for 2020. It should be noted that these trends need not be seen as water-tight compartments rather are very much interrelated to each other.

Major Trends in 2019

Duration – Temporary/Permanent?

The category of climate-induced migrants has considerable conceptual and demographic reach – ranging from sudden-onset migration to slow-onset migration, both within and without the region. Over the past few years it is observed that there has been an increase in the slow-onset migration especially due to the continuous rise in sea level, land degradation, desertification, etc. Tracking the slow-onset migration is relatively difficult as small group of people continue to move at regular intervals. In fact, there is no proper data to show how many are climate refugees in the cities because of the lack of irregularity in the movements of the migration. On the other hand, in case of sudden-onset migration, a significant number of people migrate simultaneously which makes maintaining their record relatively easier.

This migration process and settling down at a new place can either be temporary or permanent. It has been usually observed that over past couple of years there has been an increase in the number of permanent migrants. For slow-onset migrants, moving to a new place is more of a permanent phenomenon. They are more open for relocating permanently, either internally or in a third country. This is a prevalent feature amongst the less developed countries that experience increased migration pressures.

On the other hand, the scenario is different while observing the trends of migration in the developed countries where the phenomenon of temporary migration is relatively higher. People in these countries do not relocate permanently, rather they return to their home location rebuilding and continuing to live in familiar ways and surroundings after a short duration of stay. This could be attributed to the fact that people in the developed nations are more adaptive to climate change than the people from less developed countries. They are also more resilient and can diversify their livelihoods unlike the others who migrate on a permanent basis.

Rising Urbanisation

Last two years have witnessed an increase in the rate of urbanisation and the region of South Asia recorded the highest rate of urbanisation in the world at 2.5 per cent. Internal migration, one of the kinds of migration has a direct relation with the increase in rapid urbanisation leading to an upsurge in the number of urban-poor living in this region. For instance, two districts in Bangladesh – Khulna and Satkhira, located in the coastal area are more prone to impacts of climate change such as severe cyclone and coastal erosion resulting in the surge of rural to urban internal migrants in the region. It has been observed that initially the people migrating from these villages shift to the neighbouring villages and eventually (re)locate themselves to the city which is at the closest proximity, overburdening the city with an increase in the number of climate refugees. Consequently, the climate refugees are worst affected due to their sense of helplessness and lack of dignity. Thus, cities like New Delhi in India, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Dhaka in Bangladesh have become over populated.

A similar kind of situation exists in South America, where urbanisation has become the presumed phenomenon. In fact, in the last couple of years the internal migration has caused overflowing of population within the cities in this region. In 2010 around 83 per cent population resided in the cities in South America, while it has been estimated that by the end of 2020, there will be an increase by 3 per cent in the number of people residing in the cities. The expansion of the cities, the urban spaces have also increased the chances of disaster displacement risk, particularly in ill-planned areas. 

The rise in the number of people moving to the urban spaces results in more workers in the urban economy thereby reducing the urban wages. Therefore, this rise in urbanisation directly impacts the economic status of an individual. 

Internal Migration

The climate-led migration is internal. Over the past two years, same pattern has been consistent as people migrate internally. This in turn has increased the number of IDPs. As mentioned above, the first six months of this year witnessed seven million new IDPs due to climate change. Interestingly, there has been a shift in this pattern, where people now shift from moving internally to intra-regionally. For instance, people are on move within the countries of South Asia or South East Asia region. Interestingly, this has been restricted to the less developing countries and does not figure in a similar manner within the region of the developed countries. States like Bangladesh, India amongst others, have witnessed a lot more of internally displaced population due to climate change.

This has been seen as an exception with regard to the small-island states, where it is more of crossing international borders rather than relocating internally. For instance, small-island states like Nauru where all migration is international; Kiribati and Maldives where migration is largely internal and to large islands; and Tuvalu which has the patterns of both internal and international migration. It is clearly reflected that there is no similar pattern even in all the small-island states.

Rise of Populist and Nativist Discourse 

These discourses are hostile to policy designed to address climate change. The rise in these discourses is useful to understand the majority nationalism’s strong stand against the inflow of mass migration. The rise and preoccupation with the populist discourse has created binaries that does not allow the national identity to be altered/hampered by any outsider. Here the outsider is the climate refugee who seeks refuge. 

A key role in this regard has been played by Anglophone media that has provided a platform to establish this view arguing that the change in the climate is predominantly an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. This kind of discourse dominates the global North, and makes it presence felt in countries like USA, UK and Australia, while remaining distant in the global South. These countries have been hostile in their approach to formulate climate policies. 

They seek to scale back climate policies – especially the global North – countries of Europe and USA. The best example is Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline against the wishes and territorial claims of indigenous community emphasise the underpinning of the environmental negligence. This has been mainly because of the rise of populist parties in these parts of the world sharing a different viewpoint towards environmental policies and climate change. The rise in authoritarian discourses, state-sanctioned violence is exacerbating the problem. As a result the burden is more on the developing countries to incorporate adaptive and mitigation policies against climate change.

Economics as the Driver 

The economically poor, belonging to the less developed countries bear the brunt of climate change due to lower adaptive capacity unlike the developed countries of the world. The adaptive capacity depends on the individual’s income, education, health and access to natural resources. People from the less developed countries of the global South migrate to destinations that are close to the countries of origin and not to the OECD countries of the global North, which remains less affected. This has been largely because of the presence of relatively more known local opportunities and better chances of finding livelihood.

It is important to mention here that the propensity to relocate is also related to the economic status of an individual. For instance, the individuals belonging to lower-middle class would have enough to relocate but not enough to move far away. Therefore, the migration process takes place internally, to location which are closer to the affected areas. Thus, people with low-income migrate internally and the ones who belong to more affluent households choose permanent migration.

Forecasts for 2020

What lies ahead to anticipate is a difficult job. But following the trends from the last two years, a forecast of 2020 can be predicted. Giving the rise in the number of estimated environmental hazardous that the world will face in the years to come, correspondingly, the world will witness an all-time increase in the number of people becoming migrants due to climate change. This will have two strong implications – one, the risk of migrating internationally and two, the creation of new environmental risks within the receiving location. As a result, there will be an increase in the number of climate-induced migrants. It has been estimated that by 2050, 143 million more climate migrants will be generated from three regions, namely Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

The shift from IDPs to Intra-regional and International

There will be a shift and amalgamation in the levels of climate-induced migration which one observes in the present scenario. By levels of migration by the end of 2020 the world will witness a rise in the number of migrants from internal to intra-regional and most importantly, crossing international borders. Taking into consideration the condition of small island states, the fear of the loss of territory makes internal migration unfeasible. The potential of the entire nation being submerged would lead many to become stateless.

This has been observed until now that the people from the developing countries focus to relocate to their neighbouring countries. But given the present state of political affairs in the region of South Asia and East Asia, where the borders have shrunk for migrants of any kind, the burden lies on the countries to provide easy and adaptive responses for such people. This phenomenon would be affecting urbanisation trends because of the increase and overpopulated urban and semi-urban spaces. 

One of major contributing factors for the same would be the over-populated cities due to internal migration, which will also become vulnerable to the eruption of conflicts within the host region, between the local and the migrants. This leads to a conflict-driven migration, thereby making the phenomenon of migration more complex.


This means that the relationship between climate change and migration would no longer remain linear in nature rather will have a lot more complexities attached to it. It would become complex because of its intersection with the other drivers of migration like conflict over resources and scarcity. This would deepen the vulnerability of those who are already in vulnerable positions, thereby forcing them to relocate once again. The Arab Spring in this regard is note-worthy, where both climate change factors and authoritarian regimes coincided with each other for the displacement of millions of people. In these situations, the international agencies like UNHCR would find it difficult to identify and determine the status of who is a refugee as per the definition accorded by the UN Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 and its Additional Protocol of 1967.

This will have two broad consequences – first, because of the nexus between conflict, climate change and migration, the international agency would formulate a new definition or would relook at the existing one to incorporate these groups of people and second, the people who flee persecution would not be able to claim their status as refugee under the Refugee Convention 1951.

Expansion and Strengthening of the Nativist and Populist Agenda

This viewpoint has already taken its roots within the developed countries. Similar kinds of discourses will emerge in other parts of the world especially in the remaining developed countries, with an overall increase in the number of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, thereby putting pressure/burden on the developing and the less developed countries of the world. In the coming years' such agenda, alongside the rise in migration would increasingly threaten human interests and collective security, adversely affecting the world’s migrant population at large. It would be interesting to see the role of international and regional organisations in this regard to tackle a load of climate change and the induced migration. 

Role of the Regional Organisations

The role of the regional organisations will become increasingly important as climate change would impact the span of national borders. The development of transboundary adaptation will provide an opportunity to handle these risks more efficiently. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), can serve as a platform in enhancing the work on transboundary adaptation. However, there will be a lot of political and implementation challenges that these organisations will have to face posed by different nations. 

Since South Asia and East Asia produce as well as host climate refugees, adopting a SAARC or an ASEAN Climate Declaration or an Action Plan on Climate Change is the need of the hour. This might become a reality in due course off time given the increase in the environmental hazards and subsequently the rise in the number of people on move. In the absence of any laws, such plans would enable these bodies to provide regional cooperation and bear the brunt of climate-induced migration, effectively taking care of both temporary and permanent migration. 

The role of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), formed in 2004, would also be important in determining and taking up initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change. Given the fact that South Asia has been and will also be in the future vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, BIMSTEC will play a major role in controlling the levels and size of climate-induced migration, particularly in the region of South Asia.

The rise in Pre-Emptive Movement

The year 2020 will see a rise in the number of pre-emptive movements, a step that will be taken as a rational adaptive strategy, helping the potential migrants to avoid disruptions, reduce poverty and helping them to come out of vulnerable situations. This may also provide higher chances of the integration for the migrant in the host location. The rise in the pre-emptive movement will not only confine to the migrants but will also be in the form of measures taken up by different organisations as mentioned above. 

Climate change is, therefore, a threat multiplier, undoubtedly having the potential to push vulnerable states. To address the challenges associated with the forced displacement and humanitarian crises the question of solidarity and responsibility-sharing remains at the top of the international agenda. Hence, it is pertinent that the nations of the world acquire certain global, regional, and local policies to deal with the consequences of climate change. Policies that are effective in tackling the concerns that rise due to climate change and migration. Or else, the entire process of climate change and migration will become the ‘new normal’, normalising the loss of many lives, economies and nations across the globe, the beginning to which has already started.


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Roshni Sharma is an Assistant Professor (Political Science) at BMS College of Law and is also a PhD Scholar at the Jain University, Bengaluru

This essay was first published in the NIAS Quarterly on Contemporary World Affairs, Vol 2, Issue 1, January-March 2020  

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