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Vol. 24 No. 1 - January 2018

Sea Level Rise and Cross Border Migrants - An Arduous Challenge

By: C.K. Varshney*

Sea level rise is one of the most complex impacts of global warming, yet it remains one of the least studied aspects of climate change. Unabated emission of greenhouse gases strongly suggested that sea level rise will accelerate in the future with a potential rise from 0.5 to 2 m at the end of the century. A report from the UNEP warned that sea level rise around the small island states could be up to four times the global average of 3.2mm per year. According to some researchers the world has already locked in 1.3 meters sea level rise and will be much more if carbon emission is to continue.

Most of the island nations lie not more than 3 meters above sea level. Satellite images reveal that many islands have either reduced in size dramatically or disappeared. A recent study found that at least eight islands in the Pacific Ocean have disappeared due to rising sea levels. Islands in Micronesia have disappeared in recent years with little to no evidence they existed at all. Several Solomon Islands had similar fates in recent decades as they were overtaken by the sea. Republic of Kiribati, Republic of Maldives, Republic of Fiji, Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Cape Verde, Tangier Island, Virginia, and Sari chef Island, Alaska are most threatened from rising sea level.

A comprehensive study of 12,983 islands of all sizes above 2.5 hectares across the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines and Hawaiian Islands, found that some 15 to 62% of islands would entirely disappear under sea level rise ranging from 1 to 6 meters. Indonesia, an archipelagic nation of more than 17,000 islands, faces some of the worst threats. More than 2,000 of its island are at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise. An assessment of potential consequences of sea level rise for 1,269 French islands worldwide, revealed that up to 12% of all islands could be entirely submerged. New Caledonia and French Polynesia are likely to suffer most significant loss of islands.

Sinking islands present one of the most dramatic scenarios of the impact of climate change. Sea level rise poses existential threat to coastal communities and small island states in particular. The entire populations of low-lying States such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may in future be obliged to leave their own country as a result of climate change. Bangladesh is highly prone to sea level rise and climate change. One-meter rise in sea level—a plausible scenario this century—would submerge a fifth of Bangladesh and turn 30 million into “climate migrants”. Over the past two decades, Bangladeshi people have been moving out in large groups. A sizable number of Bangladeshis are living illegally in India, while many others have gone to Malaysia and the Middle East.

Indian islands too, face threat of going under water due to sea level rise. The first inhabited Indian island Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, was submerged by the rising sea level in 1980. The New Moore Island in Bay of Bengal has been also consumed recently by the rising sea. Ghoramara Island in the Sunder ban area has lost about half of its landmass forcing two thirds of its population to move out. In Kerala the Munroethuruthu delta islands, located at the confluence of Kallada River and Ashtamudi Lake have already started to drown steadily. Andaman and Nicobar archipelagos composed of 265 big and small islands in Bay of Bengal and Lakshadweep a group of 25 small islands in Arabian Sea mostly have low elevation and do not rise more than five meters above sea level. Their topography is flat and relief features such as hills, streams, valleys, render them highly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Globally 2,billion people or 39% of the population or four out of every ten people live within 100 kilometers of a coast. Three-quarters of the world’s mega –cities are by sea and seriously threatened by the rising sea level. Venice, also known as the Floating City, could disappear within 100 years from the sea-level rise. Likewise, Bangkok, a city of ten million, is sinking at a rate of 2 centimeters every year. It could be entirely under water in the span of a few decades if sea level rises faster than initially expected. Out of the ten most –vulnerable countries in the world—nations with large coastal populations and sufficient infrastructure to mitigate rising seas—seven of them are in Asia-Pacific region. India, Bangladesh and Indonesia top the list, with a combined 100 million people at risk. It is unfortunate that the island inhabitants have done little to contribute to global warming, but they are going to face some of the direst consequences of rising sea level. With sinking of islands their unique culture, art history, biodiversity will be   submerged and lost forever, apart from triggering human migration at unprecedented scale.  

No one wants to be forced out of their country because of disasters or the effects of climate change. Sea level rise will be particularly acute for island states, where increased intensity and severity of sea rise may overwhelm domestic infrastructure and water supplies. Ocean acidification, that could deplete fish resources and potentially undermine the physical stability of islands, is an additional factor compelling people to migrate. Thus for many islanders cross border migration is not an option, but a necessity.

The drivers of migration are multidimensional and complex. The environmental factors, and the economic, social, political and demographic considerations shape an individual’s decision to migrate. Island people are highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as tourism, fisheries and agriculture, among the first to suffer from sea level rise would be their economies and livelihood, which then prompt people to migrate.

The government of Kiribati had endorsed a plan to buy nearly 6,000 acres on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island to move the entire population off Kiribati. For them, moving won't be a matter of choice, it is basically a matter of survival.

We do not have a solid grasp of the dimension of climate migrant problem and future migratory patterns. Predictions about how many people will be displaced and will end up crossing national borders vary widely from 50 million or 1 billion people over the coming decades. We don’t even know how many people have already moved because of coastal submergence. Systematic data collection and statistics about cross border migrants is lacking.

Climate migrant face many social and economic hurdles in integrating with new communities, which increases their vulnerability to exploitation, financial hardship and discrimination. This can also lead to instability. Many experts now agree that can be traced in part to an extended drought from 200-2010, which led the roots of the Syrian conflict to rising food prices, urban migration, and increasing resentment at the ruling Al Assad regime for corruption and poor governance. 

Under present international law, there is no special provision to admit those leaving their countries for these reasons; rather they are dealt with through normal immigration channels. Accordingly, if someone from a country has to move out of his or her country because of sea-level rise or if a cyclone people to cross an international border, governments are under no obligation to treat them differently than any other economic migrant seeking permission to enter. In July 2015, Supreme Court of New Zealand explicitly rejected the request for refugee status by a citizen of Tuvalu arguing that they could no longer remain in their country because of the effects of climate change.

According to article1.A(2) of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the so called Geneva Convention, a “refugee” is a person who…owing to 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. Thus UN does not recognize climate or extreme weather as grounds for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Commission. As a result, those migrating due to sea level rise or the deteriorating climate change are not accorded safety and legal protections given to those fleeing persecution.

Cross border migration by climate affected people is highly tragic, but sadly, the required concern and appreciation of the gravity and complexity of this inevitable human tragedy by the world community is nowhere near of what is looming on the horizon. Legal solutions will have to be found to avoid hundreds of thousands of people getting stranded in other countries without any protection, dignity or entitlement.

Two years ago in 2015, the world celebrated a great achievement—an international climate agreement. Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement lacks the urgency, depth and coordinated framework necessary for addressing the immense challenges of climate-induced migration. Currently, national and international response to this challenge is insufficient and protection for affected people remains inadequate. 

The displacement of people from sea level rise is a cross border issue that extends beyond the authority of a single country. No single country—and its people—should have to bear the burden alone. The governess of statelessness has also attracted some attention in the debate on climate migration. Not having a nationality raises significant difficulties   for an individual because nationality is the principal link between the individual and the international law.

In view of protection gap world community has to do more and think seriously about addressing the challenge of cross boarder displacement.  There is an urgent need for an international process to formulate effective policies and mechanisms that can respond to the needs of those who will face the awful reality that they can no longer survive in their own country and will seek to enter another country. Imaginative and ingenious methods are required to mainstream migration into development planning. It is important that under the aegis of UNFCCC a fast track international process should start urgently for addressing the challenge of cross border migration in ways that preserve human dignity, ensure protection, enhance resilience and strive to ensure migration with dignity.


*Professor Emeritus, Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, & Distinguished Adjunct Professor (AIT, Bangkok) [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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