ECC Platform Library


South Asia could profit from targeted policies on climate migration

23 December, 2020
Dhanasree Jayaram, MAHE

Bangladesh, boat, river, flood, nature

Bangladesh, boat, river, flood, nature
Narayanganj, Bangladesh | © M Azharul Islam/


A lack of targeted policies to manage climate migration in South Asia is aggravating the vulnerabilities of various communities in the region. International and regional cooperation and strategy on climate action (broadly) and climate migration (specifically) is the need of the hour.

Climate migration is already happening across South Asia due to extreme weather events, droughts and other climate change-related effects and their implications for survival and physical, livelihood and food security. However, the interactions between climate change impacts and socio-economic factors make the task of assessing the risks associated with climate change a daunting challenge. While countries in the region acknowledge that climate change influences migratory patterns, they are largely reluctant to address these linkages as part of existing migration and climate-related policies in a meaningful manner. Moreover, a common position on this issue at the regional level is missing. In this context, what is required is a more robust framework for regional cooperation on climate action, which also includes measures to address climate migration.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states, “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

The IOM defines an “environmentally displaced person” in terms of “persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one.”

The UN Refugee Agency defines a ‘refugee’ as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.” A climate or environmental refugee is not yet recognised by international law.

Climate migration hotspots in South Asia 

In South Asia, most parts of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region, islands (including the Maldives and Sri Lanka), coastal areas, arid/semi-arid regions and deltaic regions (including Sundarbans) are hotspots of climate migration. Studies show that most migrants identify economic causes as the primary reason for leaving. However, environmental causes are undeniably also a major factor as they interact with the ability of communities and households to cope with macro and micro-level changes in relation to demographic, socio-economic, and governance/policy dynamics.

Rural-to-urban migration in particular is typically linked to the overdependence of rural population on the agricultural sector, which is highly vulnerable to climate change. In Bangladesh, climate change has shown to be a major driver of migration from coastal areas (affected by sea level rise, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and tropical cyclones) to the capital city of Dhaka, which has become one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Moreover, rural-to-urban and inward migration (from coastal to inland areas) have been pinpointed as leading to “unchecked urbanisation”. For instance, in India, people moving from rural and coastal areas to cities after climate-induced disasters have contributed to the increase in the number of urban poor. As cities often lack the infrastructure to host migrants, and to provide them with basic services such as drinking water and healthcare, this can create  challenges for urban planning and development.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that the reverse trend is also possible, and can be problematic. For example, in India, the lockdown measures adopted by the government to contain the spread of the pandemic have led to massive urban-to-rural migration. This has exposed serious gaps in existing migration-related policies in the country – so much so that the Indian government admitted that there were no (official) mechanisms to ascertain the number of labourers who moved from cities to villages since the lockdown started, as well as to account for deaths during migration, and job losses.

Cross-border population movements in South Asia   

The data on internal migration and displacement may be more robust in comparison to cross-border population movements in South Asian countries. This is owing in part to the political connotations associated with the latter as well as the lack of legal mechanisms to define cross-border population movements that makes it difficult for countries to provide reliable figures. Although scarce, available data shows that “seasonal migration” from Nepal to India is quite common; and that this phenomenon may be further exacerbated by climate change. Environmental factors such as frequent and more intense floods, causing the loss of lands and livelihoods, have also played an important role in driving migration from Bangladesh to India.

Amidst these many political and legal challenges, there is scepticism around the fact that South Asian countries could agree on a common approach to deal with climate migration. Even the South Asian countries’ policies on ‘refugee’ movements are not institutionalised and ridden with legal loopholes and political problems. Among the South Asian countries, only Afghanistan has so far signed and ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to Status of Refugees (UNCSR). Historically, India has accepted (either de facto or de jure) several refugees (not linked to climate change), despite not being a signatory of the UNCSR, including the Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Chakma refugees from Bangladesh, to name a few communities.

However, a visible surge in “anti-outsider sentiment” based on economic/resource competition and religious/cultural differences have complicated policy-making in parts of the country such as the north-eastern states of Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and others. Other countries have also accepted refugees in the region. Bangladesh, for instance, hosts over a million Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar due to political persecution by the country’s military junta. Here again, in Cox’s Bazar, where the refugees are currently housed, anti-Rohingya sentiment is rising among the locals due to various reasons, including the mismanagement of international aid and grievances over its distribution between the refugees and local poor. In such a scenario, the issue of climate migration can be held hostage to a politicised and securitised narrative, which does not lead to constructive solutions.

A new regional framework to address climate migration

Governments and other stakeholders in the region have increasingly come to view internal migration  as an adaptation, livelihood and survival strategy as the vulnerabilities increase in the coming years. In this respect, it is important for them to work towards creating frameworks for the protection of climate migrants (particularly environmentally displaced peoples), which are currently largely missing in all the South Asian countries. Moreover, they should prioritise investments to equip cities with the capacities and resources they need to assess vulnerabilities and diversify the labour market to absorb rural immigrants. Some initiatives have already been made in this direction with assistance from aid and donor organisations, and research institutes. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network is a case in point, working on ‘developing and implementing city resilience strategies,” in a few South and Southeast Asian cities, through vulnerability assessment, capacity-building and finance mobilisation. Similarly, in rural areas, there is a need for ushering in large-scale agrarian reforms to help farmers cope with climate shocks and encourage livelihood diversification through skills development and capacity-building.

At the same time, in the absence of enforceable principles within the international law concerning climate-related population movements, there is a need to push for a stronger regional climate change framework that could also address the issue of migration and displacement. A regional strategy needs to focus on a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change on migratory patterns. It should include, among other measures, projections of possible future trends, as well as combine quantitative and qualitative information to shed light on the driving factors and pathways of climate-related migration, disaggregated by gender, age and other identify factors that determine different vulnerabilities and needs. Only on this basis can a regional strategy support solutions, for example, looking at livelihood diversification and relocation options, or even measures targeted at improving cities’ ability to absorb migrants.

Any regional framework to address climate migration should be a part of, and mainstreamed into, a broader regional mandate to advance climate action cooperation that looks into both adaptation and mitigation. National governments could use existing regional platforms to this end, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which already introduced a three-year action plan on climate change in 2018. Other regional intergovernmental organisations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development could also serve as platforms to address climate migration at the regional level and in a context-specific way, in this case focusing on migration in mountain areas in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. Overall, however, it will be important to delink any effort at creating such a framework from existing national legislative and policy measures related to ‘migration’, as the latter are increasingly enmeshed in controversial debates (for instance, India’s Citizenship Amendment Act or Bangladesh’s approach towards Rohingya refugees), as well as historical grievances.

Pathways towards a region-wide strategy

Climate change has increasingly become a key factor in driving migration within and across the South Asian region. As these movements are seldom regulated, this can pose security threats by giving rise to competition for increasingly scarce resources with host populations and exacerbating urbanisation challenges – as the case of Bangladesh already shows.

South Asian countries need to step up their game and agree on regional strategy building on existing regional and sub-regional arrangements to address this issue. Climate change cooperation has long been stymied by geopolitical and security factors, so a new approach that accommodates the region’s priorities alongside its climate-related needs is overdue. The region also has to break the shackles of the historical baggage concerning migrants and refugees to look at this issue through a cooperative lens.

This way, the region could offer an example to other countries and regions dealing with these issues – as an international strategy is lacking. At the same time, international support could help South Asian countries better understand the problem and come up with actions to address it. The UN system and UN agencies such as the IOM also have an important role to help inform the debate and mobilise finances, and to enhance member states’ capacity to improve knowledge assessment and implement policies. Importantly, donor/aid agencies and other organisations involved in development cooperation should work towards integrating this reality into their projects and strategies in the region.


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Environment & Migration



Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more


Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more


Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more


Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more


The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more


Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more


Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more


Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more



The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more


As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more