Weather-induced Disaster Displacement and Migration in South East Asia

Flood Philippines

Weather-induced Disaster Displacement (WiDD) will be disruptive, leading to migration in Southeast Asia and accompanying climate disruption and global warming. Due to humankind’s insistence on unsustainable development and rising greenhouse gas emissions, millions of communities will become more vulnerable to severe weather conditions and significant natural disasters. Moreover, a lot of areas will become uninhabitable. It will force many individuals to relocate permanently or temporarily from their current residences. Three types of population movement caused by climate change are referred to as climate mobility: WiDD, which occurs when people are compelled to leave their homes; migration, which occurs when people move partially voluntarily; and planned relocation, which occurs when the state proactively initiates, oversees, and carries out the relocation.

Climate Mobility

Measuring and tracking trends over time can be challenging precisely because these three types of mobility overlap and sometimes happen simultaneously. A further factor to consider when analyzing how climate change affects human mobility is communities’ incapacity or unwillingness to relocate, even though doing so puts them in danger of injury, loss, and destruction. Multiple factors drive climate mobility. The most evident is the immediate devastation of infrastructure and residences caused by extreme weather and flooding. The longer-term effects of salinization, soil erosion, unpredictable weather patterns, rising sea levels, and forest degradation on water supplies, agriculture, and livelihoods are less evident drivers. A lack of data on climate mobility makes it difficult to pinpoint a single cause for every given case of forced migration or displacement. Economic and political considerations can frequently be essential co-factors. Similarly, migration and movements linked to military conflicts or economic forces may be fundamentally linked to environmental deterioration. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva released the 2022 Global Report of Internal Displacements (GRID), which states that there were 38 million individual cases of displacement worldwide in 2021, with 14.3 million (or 37.6%) originating from the East Asia and Pacific region.


Weather-induced Disaster Displacement and Migration

Those who were relocated more than once are included in these figures. WiDD accounted for over half of the global displacements, 23.7 million, with 95% occurring in the East and Pacific regions. The majority of these WiDDs occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Between 2010 and 2021, there were 225.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to catastrophes in the Asia Pacific region; of these, 95% were WiDD, and the other 5% were geophysical. Regarding WiDD, the Philippines has 5,681,000 IDPs, Indonesia has 749,000 IDPs, Vietnam has 780,000 IDPs, and Myanmar has 158,000 IDPs, the Southeast Asian nations with the highest rates in 2021. Floods and storms are the two leading disaster-related causes of WiDD in the area; between 2008 and 2020, they accounted for more than 80% of WiDD. Additionally, efforts are being made to monitor the number of scheduled relocations. For instance, research published in 2021 found that 308 relocations were planned worldwide, with more than half taking place in Asia (160). There were 29 cases reported from the Philippines and 17 from Vietnam and Indonesia. Crucially, though, half of these “planned relocations” comprised indigenous tribes and people living in rural areas; also, half of them had already experienced severe WiDD. From as few as four homes to as many as 1,000 households were engaged in each planned relocation; most involved fewer than 250 households. The World Bank’s Groundswell Report projects that by 2050, there will be 49 million IDPs in East Asia and the Pacific or 2% of the region’s total population. Depending on various scenarios, the lower Mekong sub-region of Southeast Asia is expected to witness from 3.3 million to 6.3 million new climate migrants between now and 2050, accounting for 1.4% to 2.7% of the nation’s population.

A Hotspot for Pervasive Environmental Degradation

Southeast Asia is renowned for being a hot spot for sudden, extreme weather but is also susceptible to longer-term, more pervasive environmental damage. For instance, the rise in sea level and its effects on populations through coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion are already being felt in the region’s vast low-lying coastal areas, such as those in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Mekong Delta. Though estimates of the future climate mobility’s magnitude are imprecise, considerable expansion is suggested. IDPs have increased from 3.9 million in 2008–2010 to 6.4 million in 2019–2021. Hotspots for high-risk outmigration include central Thailand and Myanmar (threatened by water scarcity and decreased agricultural production) and the coastal regions of Vietnam (threatened by rising sea levels). Most climatic movement happens within a nation, but pressure on national borders will increase if climate change worsens. However, there doesn’t seem to be any modelling for future scenarios involving cross-border migration brought on by environmental degradation and climate change. Land borers in the Greater Mekong sub-region affecting Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos may be the source of this kind of pressure. However, as the consequences of climate change intensify, cross-border migration by sea can become problematic due to the physical nature of the region.

Climate Refugees

Traditionally, academics believed that the leading causes of displacement were war and conflict. When people were compelled to flee their homes due to WiDD, such as desertification, deforestation, land degradation, and rising sea levels, some academics started referring to these people as climate refugees in the 1980s. However, climate change is not included in the international definition of refugees. It is evident that this would raise both humanitarian issues and global security. Despite the growing usage of the term climate refugees in scholarly and public discourse, individuals who are fleeing environmental disasters or risks related to climate change do not yet have the right to be recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) and its 1967 Additional Protocol. Most UN Member States adopted the non-binding 2018 UN Global Compact for Migration adopted in December 2018, created as per SDG target 10.7 on migration policies. It is a positive first step towards bolstering international cooperation in addressing the difficulties and human rights-related aspects of cross-border migrants due to climate change. Being forcefully removed from one’s home significantly harms one’s health. However, the effects vary depending on the type of migration (temporary or permanent, short- or long-term, internal or cross-border) and the social, political, and economic circumstances in both the new and home contexts. Additionally, people who are moving and those who are settled have different health requirements and consequences, as do receiving communities and those who are left behind. While relocation will lessen some dangers and concerns, many will encounter new health risks in their new environments, such as a shortage of job possibilities and the mental health risks related to social and cultural loss.

Way Ahead

The reasons behind migration are changing due to environmental tensions like climate change, and these changes do not neatly fit into the neat binary that policy and legislation use to categorize persons on the move vs refugees. I think it is time for nations to reconsider how WiDD affects migration, acknowledge the rights of those uprooted due to climate causes, and update international and national laws and policies to reflect current knowledge about these causes. Countries could be hesitant to provide what might appear to be a new entry point for migrants, but data indicates that these numbers will only increase, so nations must be ready. In Southeast Asia, climate mobility is a contemporary and urgent problem. Over the next few decades, millions in the region will probably be compelled to leave their current settlements, even if every effort is made to slow down global warming. To what extent we are ready for this is, at best, debatable. What is evident, though, is that governments have a great deal of responsibility towards present and future climate migrants. United Nations must consider adopting a second additional protocol to the UNCSR to address the WiDD populations’ problems and define the climate refugee for international and national protection. Health systems must address the burden of mental illness brought on by forced migration, as well as the physical safety and health of vulnerable people.


Nafees Ahmad Ph.D., LL.M., Associate Professor, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi. Author has co-authored a book on Climate Refugees in South Asia (Springer 2019) and teaches Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations and International Human Rights Law, IHRL, IRL and IML. [email protected], https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1791-3060

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