Bangladesh has often been coined the most vulnerable country to climate change. Additionally, the history of the small country has been shaped by human migration for millennia. Today, more than ever, people from Bangladesh are on the move. They follow work opportunities all over the world, be it in urban centers such as Dhaka, or in other countries, such as Dubai or Singapore. In this regard it is not astonishing that Bangladesh is often used as the prime example for environmentally-induced migration (or climate migration like others would call it). However, is the case of Bangladesh really that clear? Or is there a danger of overemphasizing the environmental factor in migration decisions because climate change is en vogue?
In an earlier blog post, Bejanmin Etzold stated with regard to Bangladesh that “People’s mobility is not a natural phenomenon, but a multi-causal social process”. In a similar vein, I want to add that the recent discussion on migration in Bangladesh tends to overemphasize the ‘climate change’ factor. The climate change discourse is a trend. Funding agencies, media, and political decision makers are fully aware of this topic and so are researchers. I think we should be a bit more cautious and try to bring back the discussion down to earth. For me there are three arguments that should make us more cautious when linking climate change and migration.
(1) Public perception is new, but the topic is not: In particular, the media tends to frame the relationship between climate and migration as a brand new phenomenon. It is often overlooked that the environment as well as climate variabilities have always been an integral part of peoples’ lives, not just a matter of recent times, as often suggested.
Each migration network and migration system is full of history and not just a simple reaction to climate change.
Each migration decision is based on the past experiences and future expectations of the people who consider moving; each migration network and migration system is full of history and not just a simple reaction to climate events, such as floods, droughts or the shift of rainy seasons. The same holds true in Bangladesh, which has been shaped by its changing environment for a long time.
(2) It’s not so black or white: when it comes to climate-induced migration, many authors and the public tend to emphasize the catastrophic and negative nature of migration. The environment in this vein is seen as the nebulous evil that forces people to leave.
Yes, it is right that environmental factors play a significant role in people’s livelihoods, especially in Bangladesh. Year after year, the major river systems inundate extensive parts of the country with sometimes devastating impacts, such as riverbank erosion, the disappearance of chars (river islands), and loss of crop yields. However, it is too often neglected that these floods play a vital role when it comes to agriculture, which more than 75% of the country’s population relies on. The fertile silt that comes with the monsoon floods is essential for agricultural production.
It is also correct that in the last decades high floods in Bangladesh have started to occur more often. Indeed, studies confirm that there is a link between climate change and the occurrence of floods. However, this does not automatically mean that this leads to more migration.
(3) Migration decisions are based on the current situation of a family or person: Climate change is a very abstract topic that most often is located in the future. Climate change is projected in the form of scenarios. During my research, I have never met any person who would make a migration decision based on uncertain future scenarios and my interviews with seasonal as well as permanent migrants in Bangladesh show that migration decisions are usually taken at a very late stage when problems, such as unemployment, food-insufficiency, or a stroke of fate, culminate and leave no other option than to secure livelihoods somewhere else. Nobody wants to leave home, except when it is really necessary.
Recently, the voices stressing that climate change is already happening have gotten louder. Nevertheless, these voices reach academics, experts or people who are already aware of climate change and not so much the migrants themselves. At the end it is their perception of the real and acute impact of climate events such as floods, droughts or unseasonable rain that will determine their decisions on how to deal with these impacts.
The interviews I conducted during my research in Northern Bangladesh had one thing in common: environmental change or climate change had never been stated as a direct reason for migration. Even if I specifically asked for the role of environmental events or climate impacts, its influence on the decision to migrate was seen as secondary or an additional factor or even completely neglected.
The example of Bangladesh shows what has been emphasized by migration scholars: that migration decisions are manifold and multi-causal. Thus, the main question should be: does it make sense to sort out one main factor for migration decisions and name this migration type ”climate-related”?
We shouldn´t waste our time chasing for so called ‚climate migrants‘, which, in all reality, do not exist
Migration decisions are complex. We have to sort out what are the specific drivers behind each migration decision, otherwise we end up lumping together all different kinds of migration, which can lead to a number of misunderstandings.
So can we consider Bangladesh as the prime example of climate migration?
If we say that Bangladesh is a ‘prime example’ that shows that climate change directly leads to migration, then no.
However, Bangladesh is the ‘prime example’ for climate migration in that it shows the complex interaction between families, communities, and society dealing with climate change and the role migration takes in this regard. At the same time it also illustrates that the impacts of climate change or environmental change are mediated by society and its capacity to cope and to adapt to these changes. We shouldn´t waste our time chasing for so called ‘climate migrants’, which, in all reality, do not exist in any pure and properly defined form.
This blog post reflects the results of a study on environmental change and migration in Bangladesh, conducted by the author in 2012. The results have recently been published in a TransRe working paper “Migrationspfade und Arbeitsräume in Bangladesch – Translokale Lebenssicherung in einer sich wandelnden (Um)Welt” (in German) and in a book contribution (in English): Translocal Livelihoods and Labour Migration Systems in Bangladesh.