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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Rising Tides...Endangered Lives: Bangladesh

Article by: Anisa Pontes

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the Institute for Regional and International Studies National Resource Center (IRIS NRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

41% of the Population

Climate change is predicted to disrupt the livelihoods, food production, and communities of low-lying countries like Bangladesh, where 41% of the population live in low elevation (<10m) coastal zones. Rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change will make Bangladesh’s coastal border uninhabitable. Bangladesh’s 2007 natural disaster, Cyclone Sidr, gives an example of the devastating socio-economic effects, with an estimated 2 million people having lost income and employment.

Projected climate scenarios estimate that by the years 2050 and 2100 as many as 2.1 million people could be forced to migrate as a direct result of rising sea-levels along Bangladesh’s coast.  Climate migrants will require jobs, housing, access to resources and basic human rights. In destination locations, there will be an estimated 594,000 people demanding jobs, 197,000 people needing housing, and thousands being left vulnerable to food scarcity.

Defining Climate Refugees

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that at the end of 2020, more than 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. UNHCR defines forcibly displaced persons as those who are “forced to move, within or across borders, due to armed conflict, persecution, terrorism, human rights violations and abuses, violence, the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, development projects or a combination of these factors”. While the definition has expanded to include those displaced from climate change, these individuals are not entitled to any mandatory protective standards or assistance from the host state into which they move to. Refugees in contrast are defined and protected by international law, meaning host countries must abide by obligations which include providing asylum, basic human rights and safety from being returned to danger.


The United Nations Human Rights Commission defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … or, owing to such fear is unwilling to return to it.”  This definition, however, does not extend to those displaced by natural disasters linked to climate change. Thus, those displaced as a result of climate change are not given the same degree of protection and assistance given to refugees, leaving them vulnerable to being excluded from having access to basic necessities like water, sanitation and hygiene, the right to employment, and more.

Where Will They Go?

Guterres noted, “More people are trapped in exile over many years, unable to return home, to settle locally, or to move elsewhere.”  He further encouraged the international community to support states and their citizens through preventive measures such as implementing equitable migration programs for those at most serious risk.

According to the IDMC, every year in Bangladesh 1 million people are displaced by flooding and a further 110,000 people are displaced as a result of cyclones. Atiqul Islam, mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, told Unbias The News: “Every day 2,000 people move to Dhaka, 70% of them due to natural disasters and climate change.” In mid-to-late 2022, Bangladesh experienced flash floods and subsequent inundation which washed away the property, food sources and clean water supply of over 4.3 million people. Many of those displaced in the northeastern region went to live in Korail –the largest slum in the capital, Dhaka. The city is home to 5,000 slums which house four million people. Bangladesh’s second-largest city, Chittagong, has 200 slums which house an estimated 1.4 million people. The slums are overcrowded with poor sanitation and minimal access to clean water and drainage.

Current Status of Refugees in Bangladesh

Despite Bangladesh’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, the nation has had to accommodate refugees who are fleeing their own civil war. In 2017, over 650,000 Rohingya Muslims sought asylum in Bangladesh following violence and persecution by neighboring Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Since 2018, Bangladesh has been hosting nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees many of whom were sent to Cox’s Bazaar, the International Rescue Committee reports. Shelters in the camps are typically made from bamboo and tarpaulins– materials that are not suitable for surviving the annual monsoon (rain and cyclone) season from May to September. Monsoon flooding combined with overcrowding has exposed refugees to illnesses including diphtheria and cholera, malnutrition, dengue fever, hepatitis, and diarrhea. In May 2023, the International Rescue Committee warned that 850,000 refugees are at risk of further displacement if Cyclone Mocha reaches Cox’s Bazar. The impending cyclone is predicted to destroy more than 2,600 shelters and critical infrastructures.

Projections and Consequences

The UNHCR reported that “over 70 percent of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people come from the most climate-vulnerable countries”. Their reported highlighted that Bangladesh faces the double burden of climate vulnerability and also hosting large groups of forcibly displaced people. Meaning, if its resilience is not addressed, Bangladesh and other climate “hotspot” countries will be impacted by climate shocks and extreme weather conditions continuing into the next decade. A potential solution could require vulnerable countries to further advocate for the current definition of refugees to expand to include those permanently displaced by climate change related impacts. Lessons learnt from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S and the 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake show how important disaster preparedness and resilience can be. As more countries feel the impacts of climate change, climate refugees will become the new normal. As High Commissioner Guterres warned, “natural disasters will [continue] to uproot large numbers of people in a matter of hours, forcing them to flee for their lives in conditions that resemble refugee movements.”

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