As we get busy calculating the human cost of natural disasters like Sidr, we tend to overlook the voices of the survivors. Losing their ancestral lands and loved ones, they often look up to the mega city Dhaka for survival.
Fariha Abedin of Dhaka Law Review assesses how safe they are in this mega city plagued by traffic jam and water-logging, and calls for fresh initiatives for their protection.
When the cyclone Sidr hit the southern part of Bangladesh in November 2007, Shahana Begum, like more than half a million people of the country, lost her home and all other belongings and moved to the capital. With her family, she settled on the dry bank of the capital’s biggest river in the desperation to save their existence. Like Shahana, every year millions of people are forced to leave their homes and resettle in a new city due to unexpected environmental forces. Thus climate change is triggering large scale climate refugees in Bangladesh. Though flood, cyclone and river bank erosion are significant reasons for such forced migration, landslides and drought do not count for any less. Often people from the southern part or coastal areas of the country are forced to migrate due to flood, cyclone and river bank erosion. Most of these internally displaced people relocate themselves in the capital city, Dhaka. Dhaka is already an overpopulated city which is housing more than 17 million people in an area of only 360 square kilometers. Among this huge population, almost 7 million live in slums, while a large portion stays on roadsides, railway tracks and other deserted places or parks. According to the International Organization for Migration, 70% of these slum dwellers moved to the capital as climate refugees.
A recent study titled ‘Climate refugees in Bangladesh: Understanding the migration process at the local level’ found that annually about 500,000 people move to the capital from the coastal and other rural areas of the country. The World Bank estimates that the city will be home to more than 20 million people by 2020. But Dhaka, the eleventh most populous city in the world already plagued by severe traffic jam and water lagging, is not prepared to take up this huge growth in populace.
Losing the ancestral habitats, they move to the capital. But the overpopulated capital fails to welcome them. The slum life is apparently miserable. People live in damp, moist places with no electricity, no gas, and unhealthy toilet. Drinking water is collected from the nearby ponds or other unhealthy water sources. Most of the time they use electricity illegally availed from nearby residential areas. A significant number of them are factory workers, while some are rickshaw pullers. By doing such work, they just earn a petty income which barely covers their daily expenses. Having no other options left, many resorts to begging or illegal activities. Offences like theft, hijacking, drug dealing and even prostitution are common. With a little awareness, they dump human and other wastes here and there and contribute to severe environmental pollution. Their basic human rights like the right to life, work, medicare, and education go unprotected. Thus lack of basic needs of these people and environmental degradation complement each other.
Experts opine that, if the sea level rises 1 meter in the next 50 years, one-third of the country will be flooded and additional 20 millions of people will be displaced from their land. So it is the high time to act to control the flow of climate refugees before this threat to survival arrives. The initiatives taken by the government and NGOs for the climate victims are inadequate. Association for Climate Refugees (ACR) is working since 2007 to find a durable solution to climate change induced internal displacement. Two NGOs, Bangladesh HLP Consortium and Young Power in Social Action emerged to work with them in different districts. They carry out different development projects and programs. Durable Solutions, an Australia-based NGO has given technical and financial assistance to climate refugees. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) provides financial assistance Development projects for the climate refugees are also undertaken by some volunteer organizations and the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
At the international level, it is observed that ‘Climate Refugees’ are not included in the definition of ‘Refugee’ as provided by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951. Climate refugees within the border of the country are more to be identified as Internally Displaced Persons. Principle 3(1) of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement underlines, it is not the international communities but the national authorities that “have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction”.
The Ministry of Forest and Environment framed Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan in 2009, which includes, as one of its pillars, food security, social protection and health especially for women and children who are climate victims. For the proper implementation of this Action Plan, the Ministry has enacted Climate Change Trust Act in 2010. The Act directed for financial assistance as shall be fixed by the trustee board for the adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer, finance and investment to face the effect of climate change.
Different countries have framed policies or enacted laws for the internally displaced persons. Measures have to be taken at national level in our country as well. Our Action Plan states that all programmes shall focus on the needs of this victim group for food security, safe housing, employment and access to basic services including health. Government should adopt policies specifically considering the rights of the victims to resist the effect of the flow of overwhelming climate refugees before it goes horribly wrong. More important issues to be considered in drafting the policy are –
Relocating the victims not only in Dhaka but throughout other districts
Proper housing plans for their resettlement and scope for self-employment
Ensuring educational program for the children of the victims
Arrangement for special training; and
Ensuring social security of the refugees and special security measure for girls and children.
Each point has to be focused while considering the issue as per the policy frameworks. Different units of local government need to be given the responsibilities to carry on such schemes and development programs needs to be undertaken to make this guiding policy framework successful.
For a developing country like ours, resolving the climate refugee crisis is not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. It has limitation of resources, poor socio-economic infrastructures, and even poorer technology. But the rights of this vulnerable group cannot be overlooked. The capital alone cannot house the total number of climate refugees. Joint initiatives need to be undertaken by public and private sectors. A planned integrated scheme and its proper application are of utmost importance not only to save millions of marginalized climate refugees but also to save the capital.
Writer Fariha Abedin is working as a Senior Editor at Dhaka Law Review.http://www.dhakalawreview.org/blog/2015/03/climate-refugees-in-bangladesh-legal-frameworks-and-further-initiatives-648