Gimme Shelter

More than 700,000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee to Bangladesh from Rakhine State after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown in late August last year Photo: Reuters

Seeking refuge in a climate vulnerable nation

Dr Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh. The interview has been edited for clarity.

There is a general belief that climate change will cause mass migrations in the future. Did climate change play any role in the exodus of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh?

No, there is no causal link to climate change. The exodus is completely political, caused by ethnic cleansing from inside Myanmar. A completely anti-humanitarian, anti-human rights campaign which pushed these people across the border.

However, what does it mean that the Rohingya have sought refuge in one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world? 

Well, Bangladesh has a brand new climate change vulnerability hotspot that didn’t exist even a year ago. The country is already one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change because of both geography and poverty.

A recent study identified a number of very climate vulnerable hotspots in the country. The low-lying coastal region was identified; the northeast flash-flood region, known as the haor region; and the drylands in the northwest.

But now to that list we will have to add the major Rohingya camps, Kutupalong and Balukhali, that house nearly a million people. They are living in very precarious conditions that are impacted by heavy rainfall in the monsoons. And if they continue to live there, they will certainly be impacted by the consequences of climate change.

What would a climate-resilient or adaptive humanitarian response look like?

In my view, a climate resilient humanitarian response needs to think about some long term aspects of housing and accommodating these million or so Rohingya refugees.

I think while the aspiration to have them go home to Myanmar is fine, the practicality and likelihood of that is very low. Hence we are going to have to think about housing them and looking after them for the long term.

Another major factor in my view is the fact a large number of them are actually children. They are young kids. And so, in a sense, we are their parents now and we have to bring them up and look after them; ensure that they become good citizens of the world.

We don’t necessarily have to give them Bangladeshi citizenship, but we have to make them into good citizens by providing them with education. And right now, we are mostly giving them safe shelters. We are giving them a little bit of education, but not much. I think that needs to be factored into the future.

The final element is where they are going to be located. It is a very precarious long term proposition for them to remain in the camps. We do need to think about allowing them to relocate in different parts of the country. Older waves of Rohingyas have been able to do that, and have settled mainly in the Cox’s Bazar region. I think that’s something we need to think seriously about. Confining them to the camps was alright in the short term, but is a questionable practice in the long term.

Originally this interview was published on August 17th, 2018 at Climate-Tribune (Dhaka Tribune)

Interviewed by Meraz Mostafa is a research officer at ICCCAD and in charge of providing content to the Climate Tribune.