India is fencing off its border with Bangladesh. What will that mean for millions of potential climate refugees?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 20 2010 10:03 AM

The Great Wall of India

India is fencing off its border with Bangladesh. What will that mean for millions of potential climate refugees?

(Continued from Page 1)

South Asia is one of the few areas in the world without regional migration policies in place. Efforts to create climate-sensitive policies would raise some hard conceptual questions. First, for many Bangladeshi and Indian elites, climate change is a suspicious term, smacking of Western injustice and the politicized vagaries of foreign aid. Second, even the choice between climate refugee, which places blame on some greenhouse-gas emitter, and a softer term like environmental migrant is significant. This isn't just semantic hand-wringing—the debate reflects different legal frameworks that could determine whether a Bangladeshi receives an expedited visa or is forced into a surreptitious border crossing.

If the Asian monsoon becomes harsher and sea levels continue to rise, the fence in its current form won't be enough to keep Bangladeshis from fleeing to India. But the anti-immigrant mindset behind the fence might make matters worse. Rather than resist climate refugees, India should take steps to handle such an influx smoothly. In a sense, climate refugees are easier to plan for than political refugees, since we can roughly predict which areas will be worst hit. India could start by offering work permits to Bangladeshi migrants, with at least some preference given to migrants from affected areas. India could also support Bangladesh in calling for a new legal regime for climate migrants.

There are some promising signs that India will collaborate with Bangladesh to address climate migration. Earlier this year, both nations announced that they would work together to protect a shared treasure threatened by climate change—the Sundarbans mangrove forest, which buffers the vulnerable southern coast from sea-level rise and cyclones. But India has also agreed to study the feasibility of building two coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh—a retrograde move.

Underscoring their shared interests, one estimate has ranked Bangladesh and India as the two major countries most vulnerable to climate change. You don't have to look far to observe their tightly intertwined futures. India's Farakka dam across the Ganges, for example, has failed to flush sediment away from Kolkata—its stated goal—while heightening Bangladesh's susceptibility to climate-change disasters, displacing at least 450,000 Indians and causing at least one catastrophic flood in the region.

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Making the best of these linked ecologies will require unprecedented cooperation, not barbed-wire fences. To this end, prominent Bangladeshi academic Imtiaz Ahmed has argued that borderlanders from both India and Bangladesh should be able to vote in both countries. The proposal rings of utopianism, but rising sea levels could make the alternatives seem equally absurd. The Indo-Bangladesh fence "won't stop climate refugees," Ahmed says. "The Great Wall of China could not withstand Mongol invaders and was eventually abandoned. The Berlin Wall collapsed." The fate of the Great Wall of India seems even more tenuous. After all, as Ahmed notes, this "wall" is a billion-dollar fence that children can snip through with 20-cent scissors.

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