Harnessing Migration for Climate Resilience: A Case for Robust Policies in South Asia

By Purnima Joshi

Migration has been an intrinsic part of human history, driven by factors such as climate shifts, economic opportunities, conflict, and societal changes. South Asia, home to the first human settlers out-of-Africa, is a densely populated sub-region occupying 3% of the world’s total area housing 21% of the world’s population with a diverse socioeconomic set-up that includes a large number of poor people who live on less than a dollar per day. The region is currently grappling with the challenges posed by climate-induced displacement. Understanding the context of present-day migration in South Asia and recognizing the potential benefits of formulating effective policies that address the region’s needs and concerns are not only crucial but also urgent, given the region’s propensity for climate disasters; however, its fast-changing migration patterns need a nuanced approach to policy.

The 2023 Global Report on Internal Displacement states that there were 71.1 million internally displaced people across the world at the end of 2022, of which 8.7 million were displaced because of disasters. That number increased by nearly 40% per cent compared to that in the previous year and now stands at 32.6 million. South Asia recorded the highest regional figure, surpassing East Asia and the Pacific for the first time in a decade.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather events in South Asia only highlights the region’s vulnerability and the necessity for migration. Current estimates suggest that nearly 40 million people in South Asia could be forced to flee their homes by 2050 due to climate-related factors.

Climate change has devastating impacts lives, livelihoods, and food security across South Asia and is a major driver of migration, which is likely to escalate in the years to come. According to ICMD’s latest Global Report on Internal Displacement, 3.3 million new displacements occurred in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, triggered by seasonal and recurring weather-related extreme events in 2018. There is a growing need to capture evidence on how such impacts of climate change as drought and sea-level rise are leading to migration, according to the Participatory Research Module on Climate Migration

We also need durable solutions to meet the scale of challenges faced by displaced people and India, a major destination for climatically displaced persons, could play a crucial role in developing such solutions. Among such solutions are (1) bringing more people under the ambit of cash assistance, (2) improving the economic security of the internally displaced, and (3) investing in measures that reduce the risk of climate change and thereby strengthen their communities’ resilience.

South Asian Voices and Regional Collaboration
Although most of South Asia’s climate induced migration is internal, Asian Development Bank’s research report indicates that cross-border migration is also on the increase. With nearly 40 million people at risk of displacement due to environmental disasters, a state-led consultation forum, akin to the 2012 Nansen Initiative, could harmonize regional standards. Such a forum would address issues such as best practices for admission and stay, humanitarian assistance, mobilization of finances, and long-term solutions for displaced persons. It’s time to revive and rejuvenate regional collaboration to promote economic growth and combat climate change impacts, and, contrary to global patterns, South Asian countries have shown greater interest in regional cooperation, evident in the form of SAARC, BBIN, and BIMSTEC.

CANSA’s Road Map to a Framework for the Protection of Climate Migrants recommends a four-step plan for South Asian countries for bilateral (India–Bangladesh, Pakistan–Afghanistan, and India–Nepal, for example) collaboration to develop a framework to protect the displaced and those forced to migrate across the border by making their lives safe in a foreign land. The steps are as follows.

1. Recognition, assessment, and attribution

2. Cooperation and collaboration

3. Plan of action

4. Implementation

The report emphasizes the potential of migration as a force for prosperity and development if harnessed properly and also advocates policies to match the skills of migrants to the needs of their host country while addressing the concerns of its citizens.

Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Pradyut Bordoloi, MP, introduced the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022. This pioneering bill provides a comprehensive framework for holistic rehabilitation of climate migrants; emphasizes setting up a designated fund and an inter-ministerial authority at national and state levels; and reaffirms the rights of climate migrants. India, as a growing superpower, could eventually lead in developing a progressive regional solution to the growing problem of climate migration.

Navigating the Waves of Change

Migration is complex and multifaceted, driven by historical, economic, and environmental factors. In South Asia, where climate-induced displacement is on the rise, robust migration policies are not just a necessity but an opportunity.

As South Asia navigates the uncharted waters of climate-driven migration, the region has the opportunity to shape policies that go beyond supporting climate migrants and embrace economic resilience.

Framing climate-responsive migration policies not only addresses the challenges posed by climate-induced displacement but also unlocks myriad economic opportunities. If migrants are welcomed, integrated, and given opportunities to develop their skills, the economic benefits can be substantial. South Asian countries have the opportunity to turn the challenge of climate-induced migration into a catalyst for sustainable economic growth and resilience by embracing the potential and developing policies aligned with the principles of climate justice.

The Climate Migrants bill mentioned above and the global perspective presented by the World Bank highlight the potential of migration to contribute to development. Regional collaboration and a forward-looking approach can harness that potential for positive transformation of South Asia, making it a region that instead of being a mute witness to history stands proud as the architect of economic future in the face of climate change.

Purnima Joshi is Communications Coordinator at CANSA.