Same Same but Different

For one IOM staffer in Asia, a chance meeting personalizes the Nansen climate initiative and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

A few weeks ago I met a young Bangladeshi woman called Reshma. She and I are roughly the same age. We also, oddly, resembled each other as there was no real difference in our height, our skin tones nor our smiles. But that’s where the similarities ended. We come from worlds apart: she from an impoverished, flood-prone scrap of land in Southern Bangladesh, and I from a comparatively privileged big city background across the border in New Delhi.

While communicating through a combination of broken Bangla and Hindi, she told me that it had been nearly six years since Cyclone Aila displaced her family for the first time. Since then, Reshma has lived in several locations along the embankment. The houses that surrounded us were tiny, consisting of a single room usually shared by a family of five or more. They were made of uneven planks of wood hammered together under thatched grass roofs, standing on frail bamboo stilts that elevated the floors a few feet above the water. They did not appear strong enough to weather the storms, and Reshma described how the houses were often washed away or badly damaged during the floods and cyclones to which the area is predisposed to. When this happens, she explained that her whole family would pack their belongings and relocate.

Despite such adversity, Reshma was among the few women who had graduated from high school. Empowered by this, she told me about her plans to move to the nearest city of Khulna to find a job. I looked at the other young women around us, they also observing me with fascinated faces and young children balanced on their hips. Reshma was evidently an anomaly in the area. A quick scan of the village revealed that its inhabitants consisted mainly of women, children and old men. Reshma concurred: most of the young men had migrated to join the legions of rickshaw pullers amongst other low skilled occupations, in nearby cities, earning an average of USD 90 a month.

I met Reshma during a field visit to Dacope, a sub-district in Bangladesh north of the Sundarbans, which was one of the worst affected during Cyclone Aila in 2009. The visit was organized as a part of the South Asia Governmental Consultation of the Nansen Initiative, a bottom-up, state-led consultative process that aims to develop a ‘protection agenda’ for those displaced across borders by natural disasters. Reshma’s example shows that protection is a challenge not just for those displaced across borders, but also for internally displaced persons. This situation of protracted displacement had left her and her family vulnerable on many accounts, unable to fully attain economic, food, health, environmental and personal security. In the face of climate change, it is generally agreed that displacement due to disasters may increase, which raises the question on how protection can best be ensured. 

This year is important for global discussions on mobility in the context of climate change. Ongoing at present is the Global Consultation of the Nansen Initiative and a meeting on “Migration with Dignity” hosted by the Government of Kiribati. These meetings will form important inputs to the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, to be held in December this year.

COP 21 has special relevance as during this meeting Member States will decide on a new legally binding climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. It remains to be seen if COP 21’s outcome will fortify the link between mobility and climate change and thereby contribute to the global discourse on the subject. Until then and afterwards, continued global efforts will be required to build a consensus on how to best provide protection and facilitate national, regional and international responses to mobility in the context of natural disasters and environmental degradation precipitated by climate change.

As I left, I wished Reshma goodbye and she asked me graciously to visit again. Touched by her hospitality, I pondered again about how it wasn’t a random process that she and I, despite our similarities, had polar opposite life experiences. While numerous factors were certainly at play in establishing these differences, it does give an added impetus to advocate for overcoming the operational, institutional and legal challenges to ensure human rights and human security, particularly for this group of people displaced in the context of climate change.

Rehsma’s home in rural Bangaldesh