Climate Refugees, Sundarbans and the Dearth of Legal Response

Amit Ghosh* | Sep. 20, 2020


Climate-related displacement and migration is one of the greatest challenges of our era. While there is largely a consensus that global warming impacts us all, its potentiality as the trigger for mass human migration is often ignored. Communities in arid and semi-arid lands, small islands, hilly areas, coastal areas etc. are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is estimated, by 2050, there would be over 140 million climate-induced migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South-east Asia alone. Not long ago, year 2017 recorded 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements, raising the alarm bell for the entire world.

The fact remains that the disadvantaged and ill-equipped communities (both usually go together) bear the maximum brunt. The tragedy is, despite the normative legal framework in place at least cursorily, the issue of climate refugees remains low in the priority list of the international community. It is high time that the matter is given the due recognition, which the seriousness of the situation commands. 

International Legal Matrix

The 1979 World Climate Conference identified climate change as an ‘urgent world problem’. After this, numerous scientific and State-level conferences took place, often led by the United Nations Environment Programme. Those efforts culminated in the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the monumental Rio Summit of 1992. However, it lacked the vocabulary to address the social and human rights impact of climate change, including migration. The definition of refugees under Article 1 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 considers only ‘persecuted’ people as the beneficiaries of refugee rights. To date, the scope of definition remains unaltered and any other class which is not persecuted remains outside the ambit of the protection offered by the Convention. Oxford English Dictionary does define climate refugees as those who are forced to leave home as a result of the effects of climate change on their environment. But unless a legally recognized definition is evolved, or the pre-existing definition of refugees is expanded to accommodate the new challenges, it would hardly matter for the displaced victims. More recently in 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Compact on Refugees was adopted by a substantial majority in the UN General Assembly. It was recognized that:

climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements

While it can be called progressive that the issue got formal recognition, the nature of reference in a sixty-page document was rather tokenish and cannot be treated as anything more than a very nominal starting point.

Indian Approach and Sundarbans

India floated the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008 covering aspects related to the ‘socio-economic impacts of climate change including the impact on health, demography, migration patterns and livelihoods of coastal communities’. But the reference to migration in the plan primarily dealt with non-human species and the whole policy, in any case, was never supplemented by an enforcing law. Unfortunately, the socio-economic human impact of climate change continues to be an underexplored field for the policymakers in India.

On Sagar Island lying on the continental shelf of Bay of Bengal, several climatic changes are already visible and are expected to worsen. In more than a hundred islands constituting the Indian Sundarbans (UNESCO designated World Heritage Site with a population of 4.5 million), Sagar Island is the largest in Sundarbans and most populated with more than two lakh inhabitants.

The map below sourced from the website of National Geographic captures the geography of the region well enough to give an exact idea of its complex contours:

Belonging to the world’s largest delta region (also spanning up to India’s neighbour Bangladesh), Sagar has become a hotspot for environmental scientists and researchers willing to explore what India’s climatic future in this region may behold. Extreme temperatures, changes in rainfall, the incidence of extreme weather events, and sea-level rise are all expected to increase.

More than 20 percent of India’s populations live within 31 miles of the same coastline of which Sagar is a part. By 2100, the sea-level in the region is projected to increase between 1.3-2 feet, and temperature 2.6 to 4.8 degrees. Sagar is resource deficient and further shifts in climate are likely to affect the Indian population similar to people of Bangladesh where instances of migrating shrimp farmers from coasts to cities due to an altered unfavourable climate are already recorded in large numbers.

Last year 5 million citizens were displaced in India due to natural disasters. Ghoramara, an island near to Sagar is already sinking and the reports are available to show how migration from Ghoramara to Sagar will put the pressure on grappling public utilities and the overall economy of the region. In most cases, boats with migrants predominantly comprise women because men are already out searching for jobs. In the past 25 years, four islands of Sundarbans have disappeared, creating many climate refugees.

Clearly, the threat is very real and needs immediate action. Peripheral dwellers on these islands are particularly affected and are constantly forced to move every year after their lands get usurped by rising water. Bhora Kotal (or high tides) is the biggest fear phrase for the local population. They are constantly insecure and know that if things keep moving like this, their days in the ancestral homeland are numbered. Particularly when the domestic legal framework appears reluctant to traverse anywhere beyond ‘disaster management‘, the prospects of getting the right kind of cushioning from State get bleak.


Sundarbans like stories are not unique. The first application that can be considered as coming from climate refugees in the modern sense was recorded in 2014 when a family from the South Pacific island of Kiribati sought refuge in New Zealand. Their island nation had disappeared into the sea and they had no other place to go.

It is now widely argued and accepted that climate-based migration has the potential of serious socio-legal, economic and political impacts. Therefore, till the moment the international community wakes up to the reality that such instances of migration are becoming graver and more frequent, it will be impossible to cope up with the challenges that the future may roll out for the disadvantaged and the non-elites. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals’ commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ will be extremely difficult to be realized in tangible terms, especially when it is about the helplessness of the climate victims.

References :

  1. P.S. Jaswal & S. Jolly, Climate Refugees: Challenges and Opportunities for International Law, 55:1 JILI 45 (2013).
  2. Raphaella Mascia, Complications of the Climate Change Narrative within the Lives of Climate Refugees: Slow Causality and Apocalyptic Themes, 22 Consilience 31-38 (2020).
  3. Regina Axelrod et al. (eds.), The Global Environment: Institutions, Ław and Policy (CQ Press, 2005).

*About the Author

The author teaches at Surendranath Law College, Govt of West Bengal, India.

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