We need to talk about climate migration

That Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change is no longer news. Being a deltaic low-lying plain with a long coast, Bangladesh is geographically susceptible to natural disaster. Climate change has heightened that susceptibility and increased consequences and impacts.

Testimonies and lived experiences of the affected people in the Sundarbans region prove that climate-induced disasters in Bangladesh have been frequent and intensified largely after the large cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009. The Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) conducted a longitudinal research in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira from July 2022 to September 2023, which found that the people of the Sundarbans region, over the last 15 years, have been hit by cyclones once every 17 months, and been victims of floods, river erosion or erratic rainfall almost every year. The frequency of high tidal surge and the rapid salinisation of water and soil have emerged as a persistent threat for the communities. The impacts of frequent and intensified disasters lead to partial or complete loss of assets, livelihoods and well-being, which leave people in a continuous struggle to cope and survive.

The lack of need-based assistance and plans for sustainable adaptation push the majority of the vulnerable people to simply rely on loans to rebuild. Unfortunately, efforts to rebuild and restore their lives and livelihoods often become useless when the next disaster strikes, even before the loans are paid off. Thus, people fall into a debt trap.

The OKUP longitudinal research has proven that where the income and employment opportunities have almost dried up in the communities due to climate-induced disasters, and where most of the households have already fallen into debt traps, many people search for livelihoods outside their villages either in a new district, a city or a town, while many of them go overseas to find employment to survive.

As per OKUP research, 59 percent households in the Sundarbans region have at least one member who resorted to migration to find work for their survival in the context of climate change. Meanwhile, 86 percent of them migrated internally to work in different seasons in a year, and 14 percent people migrated abroad. Most of the internal migrants work as contractual labourers in agriculture, brick kilns, construction or daily wage-based labour.

These types of jobs are treated as informal sector work, and thus are excluded in the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, amended in 2013 and 2018, as well as the Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015, amended in 2022. The exclusion of informal sector workers in the labour law and regulations is a complete denial of fundamental rights and protection of the workers. Most of the seasonal migrants testified that they often face non-payment of wages and salaries, excessive work by force, no healthcare, and many other forms of exploitations, but cannot claim any justice or remedies due to being excluded in the law.

On the other hand, data from the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) shows that 786 people from Satkhira’s Shyamnagar upazila have migrated abroad for employment between October 2022 and September 2023, compared to 477 people the previous year, which is a sharp increase of 65 percent over only 12 months.

The lived experiences and the testimonies made by the returnee migrant workers revealed that 81 percent of them were not provided work permits upon their arrival in the destination countries. Some returnees claimed that they had been threatened with being handed over to the police if they did not agree to pay additional money for their work permits. In this situation, some of them had to borrow additional money, thus increasing their burden of debt back home. Still, some of them were not provided any work permits at all. Some returnees stated that they had fled without paying. Many migrants who were recruited by small companies lost their jobs all of a sudden because the companies shut down operations without any notice and without giving any reason. They all became undocumented and fell into more exploitative conditions.

The returnee migrant workers, both internal or international, and the families of the current migrant workers stated that migration was never a choice for them. They opted to migrate mostly because they were compelled to pay off their loans and rebuild their lives in the context of persistent threats by climate-induced disasters. Lack of good governance and accountability in the recruitment system as well as lack of protection measures push them into more risks and vulnerabilities, towards an undignified life as victims of trafficking or forced labour.

To address climate change and its impacts, the Bangladesh government has several plans, policies and strategies. It has also ratified various international conventions, protocols, compacts and adopted national laws, policies and rules to ensure safe, orderly and responsible migration. However, when it comes to climate-induced migration, policy frameworks are disconnected from reality or limited.

Being a front-runner in the climate negotiations and having a firm commitment to promote safe and orderly migration, Bangladesh must recognise the interconnections between climate change and migration and raise the issue in the negotiations within the UNFCCC mechanisms, including the ongoing COP28. The government must create opportunities of regular pathways for migration of the people who are victims of climate change, particularly youths. They must demand funds from the Loss and Damage Fund for enhancing transformative skills and capacities of the affected people to make them competent for employment in both local and international labour markets.

It is also immensely important for the government to ensure appropriate protection for migrant workers, both internal and international, to protect them from trafficking and forced labour. Otherwise, it may cause further detrimental impacts on the families and communities.

Shakirul Islam. Founding chair of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a grassroots migrants’ organisation in Bangladesh.

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