Rohingya refugee crisis through the lens of climate change | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 26, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:24 AM, August 26, 2019

Rohingya refugee crisis through the lens of climate change

One of the depressing aspects of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh is that we understand the problem and know the solution, but it is difficult to be sure how we will get there and when. Our response to global climate change may add a different perspective to this dire refugee situation.

There are three basic responses to climate change, also called climate crisis or climate emergency. The ultimate solution to climate change, if I am allowed to say so, is the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as soon as possible, so that the on-going and expected changes in the climate can slow down, and hopefully, revert back in the long run. This is possible by radically changing our fossil-fuel-based systems into a renewable-energy-based one. We call this response “mitigation”.

Unfortunately, even drastic actions to reduce greenhouse gases will take time to produce a positive impact, even if all countries become really serious about it. Its negative effects on an already warm world will thus continue for a long time. This brings in the second response to climate change, or “adaptation”, where we adjust to the harmful effects of climate change. If floods continue to stay for a longer period of time, we grow flood-resistant rice to minimise our food loss, for example.

Our adjustments to climate change impacts, however, may fall well short due to the severity of climate-induced natural disasters. Then comes the third response, which is to tackle the “loss and damage” caused by the changing climate. Given the intensity of calamities, we may lose our precious possessions to the insatiable hunger of climate change.

Now, let us examine our responses to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh in light of the above responses to climate change. We all agree that there is no other solution to this refugee crisis except returning all Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. This is the only mitigation option to address this crisis. Period.

Since mitigation is taking time, we are currently going through the adaptation phase of this crisis. The government of Bangladesh, the host communities, the UN agencies, and international and national organisations, with generous financial support from many donors, are trying to adjust to the crisis. We are maintaining an environment in the 30-odd refugee camps spread over Ukhiya and Teknaf sheltering nearly a million Rohingyas so that they do not fall victim to any tragedy.

We have been facing loss and damage from day one of this two-year-old crisis. We cleared 6,000 acres of forestland, mostly covered with natural greenery. A recent report by the Bangladesh Forest Department estimated a damage of Tk 460 crore from tree loss, while the overall ecological damage comes to another Tk 1,400 crore.

After adopting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, it took the world 23 years to agree upon concrete actions called the Paris Agreement. Over all these years, discussions went on from who to blame for climate change, to who to reduce how much of carbon and by when, to why we should compromise on our pace of economic growth. But the main problem is, unless all countries agree upon doing their bit in reducing carbon emission drastically, there is no other way to cool down the already-heated-up atmosphere. After all, we all breathe the same air.

Nevertheless, climate change has always been surrounded with uncertainties. The best way to fight such uncertainties is to use the available information, technologies, and resources to create some form of certainties within the uncertainties, which we call climate predictions. This approach actually worked in climate change discussions and led to the Paris Agreement.

The limited, but commendable, progress that we have made at the global level is because countries have realised that climate change is real and happening now, that we need to make a drastic shift towards low-carbon-emitting economy to keep the global temperature rise well below two degree Celsius to save the world from irreversible destructions, and that we need to allocate resources, build capacities, and develop technologies to support that shift as well as to adapt to climate change.

The Rohingya refugee crisis is directly affecting Bangladesh in an unprecedented manner. The sheer number of refugees—with 55 percent of children without access to proper education, thousands of men without work to keep them engaged, hundreds of thousands of girls and women vulnerable to exploitation—has indeed become a “ticking time-bomb”. We do not need a computer modelling to predict that.

The cost of not resolving this refugee crisis soon will not only make Bangladesh suffer more, but also the region and beyond, through violence, trafficking, and radicalisation. Like climate change mitigation, countries, forums, and actors at regional and global levels need to recognise that the Rohingya refugee crisis is essentially a global crisis and they should work together towards a single urgent solution—that is, proper repatriation of all refugees to Myanmar as soon as possible.

To be realistic, a complete return of all Rohingyas will take time. Based on the anticipated realisation that Rohingya crisis is a global emergency, donors need to continue funding to ensure basic facilities in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. In addition to humanitarian support, they also need to channel resources for the development of the host communities in Cox’s Bazar and for the restoration of the camp sites in a post-repatriation era.

The UN and the global community have not been successful in taking immediate, proper measures to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis. There is no other option but to take a diplomatic approach to resolve it. Bangladesh is now leading the way in that direction working with all concerned countries, as we have been seeing, especially in the recent months. These countries now need to continue responding to Bangladesh’s call.

Last month in Dhaka, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Bangladesh for being on the forefront of tackling climate change. He called Bangladesh the “best teacher” in climate change adaptation. With her diplomatic leadership, Bangladesh indeed is walking towards the same direction in refugee crisis resolution.


Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research system. Haseeb tweets as @hmirfanullah

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