Climate Refugees in South Asia Need Protection, Advocates Say

NEW YORK, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – People forced to leave their homes because of climate change in South Asia should get the same protections given to political refugees, advocates said on Thursday.

Escaping the floods in Bangladesh. Photo: Bangladesh Department of Disaster Management

Governments in South Asia have failed to address the climate migration of millions of people, uprooted by cyclones, flash floods and other disasters, said a report by the non-profit groups Climate Action Network – South Asia, Bread for the World and ActionAid.

The region’s eight nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – should adopt a treaty and policies to help protect climate refugees, said Harjeet Singh, a spokesman in India for the South African-based ActionAid.

The eight nations comprise the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), whose most recent diplomatic summit was postponed indefinitely this year amid tension between India and Pakistan.

“We share a common ecosystem, and we share common mountains, rivers, history and culture,” Singh said. “When these solutions need to be devised, we have to have common solutions.”

SAARC should have policies under which people crossing borders due to environmental crises are recognized as refugees, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Refugees have an array of rights and protections under international law overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, created following World War Two.

South Asia, the world’s most disaster-prone region according to the United Nations, has suffered widespread droughts, heat waves and cyclones leading to crop failures in recent years, the report said.

More than 46 million people in South Asia fled their homes due to natural disasters between 2008 and 2013, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has estimated. Those disasters included cyclones, flash floods and earthquakes.

Such displaced people typically lose their assets such as their savings, land, cattle or tools, advocates say.

In May, Cyclone Roanu swept through South Asia’s Bay of Bengal, destroying the homes of some 125,000 people and costing an estimated $1.7 billion in reconstruction costs, the report said.

Reporting by Sebastien Malo, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.