Bangladesh is a deltaic country covering an area of almost 148,000 square kilometres, which is about 40 percent of the area of Germany. Eighty percent of the land area consists of floodplains of major rivers including the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. In 2021, the population was about 166.7 million people. Internal and international livelihood migration is common. With global climate change and variability, the country is facing rapid and slow onset climate change events and processes, and this is influencing the mobility of population within and from the country. Nonetheless the relationship between climate change and migration is complex and other (social, economic, political etc.) factors interact with climate change and shape the need and decision to move. The decision to migrate takes place on a forced-voluntary continuum, ranging from more aspirational voluntary movement to movement as necessary action to cope with the consequences of climate change. In the context of rapid onset climate events or disasters, many people become victims of forced displacement, as in the case of super cyclone Amphan in May 2020. This article discusses how climate change influences migration patterns in Bangladesh and whether migration is an effective and successful adaptation strategy.
Climatic phenomena in Bangladesh
People living in the southern coastal belt and the major river estuaries in Bangladesh are highly exposed to tropical cyclones, flooding and riverbank erosion, whereas those in the North-West are facing droughts, low precipitation and heat waves. Bangladesh also experienced catastrophic floods in 1988, 1998 and 2004 when more than 60 percent of the country was inundated for the duration of several months.
These events have somehow affected the traditional livelihoods and lives of the Bangladeshis in general. Especially, agro-based livelihoods and farming communities are endangered by rapid as well as slow onsets events of climate change. They are frequent victims of crop failure, crop loss and asset loss which puts them in debt, a state associated with the lack of employment and chronic poverty.
Forms of migration and main drivers
Migration can be internal and international. International migration from Bangladesh is mainly directed towards the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries with people leaving on the basis of short-term labour contracts. A significant number of Bangladeshis migrated to the USA, Australia and Europe, where there are now sizable Bangladeshi diaspora communities, for example in
Another major trend of internal migration in Bangladesh is a growing share of female migrants, mostly due to dwindling economic opportunities in rural areas and growing job markets in Bangladesh’s major cities. The readymade garments sector – mostly located in the capital Dhaka and Chittagong – is the most important pull factor of large-scale female migration to cities.
A section of internal migrants circulates repetitively among their origin and destination areas based on seasonal labour demands. Inflows of internal migrants to rural areas occur during harvest and sowing seasons and outflows to urban areas outside of these seasons. People of the drought-affected North-West region of Bangladesh have been engaging in rural to urban cyclical and seasonal migration for ages, particularly in the lean season (also referred to by the Bangladeshi term "Monga"), when people are confronted with poverty and hunger due to a reduced availability of job opportunities for rural workers (in the months March and April as well as from September to November).
Displacement after disasters, another major from of internal mobility, often involves short distances and short-term movements, but can be protracted as well. According to estimates of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) floods during the monsoon season annually displace on average one million people in Bangladesh, whereas cyclones displace an average of 110,000 people a year. From 2008 to 2021, IDMC registered 15.5 million internal displacements due to disasters.
Migration decisions are based on an interplay of different types of economic, social, political, demographical and environmental factors. Therefore, it is difficult to single out environmentally induced migration.
Impact of climate change on migration patterns in Bangladesh
Considering the climatic characteristics of Bangladesh and the trend of exacerbation of climate-related hazards in coming years and decades, studies suggest that the volume of certain types of population movements are likely to increase. This seems to hold true especially for internal displacement and internal rural to urban migration that have already risen due to climate change, whereas environmental events can be less linked with international migration from Bangladesh or only play a minor role.
The 2011 Bangladesh population census revealed a significant negative trend in population growth in environmentally fragile areas, especially in coastal regions, compared to other areas. Analysis of 2001 and 2011 census data shows that the total net migration from the 19 coastal districts of Bangladesh to other areas of the country was 2.6 million during the inter-censual period, accounting for 7.2 percent of the total population of these districts.
Studies emphasise the likelihood of intensified migration due to natural disasters in the future. For example, one study released in 2013 estimates that as many as 9.6 million Bangladeshis could migrate from their places of usual residence due to floods, storm surges, riverbank erosion and sea level rise in the period 2011 to 2050.
Is migration an effective and successful adaptation strategy in Bangladesh?
Currently, there is a debate in migration and climate change discourse and research whether migration is a successful adaptation strategy or is, in fact, a failure of local (or in-situ) adaptation as well as a threat to the places (mostly cities) migrants move to. The dominant policy discourse is still portraying migration largely negatively or as the last resort when all other adaptation strategies have failed. However, emerging literature on climate change-related migration in different regions of Africa and Asia-Pacific recognises the potential role of migration for adaptation to climate change.
Research in the regions of Bangladesh that are affected by cyclones, drought and riverbank erosion found that those households that used labour migration of some family members to cities as livelihood diversification strategy have adapted better compared to families whose members stayed put. Migration of household members improved the financial situation of migrants and their households compared to non-migrant households.
One of the most recent large surveys on migration and adaptation conducted in 19 coastal delta districts of Bangladesh involving 8,713 households found that 35 percent of these households had at least one member who had migrated for livelihood either internally or internationally. Remittances constituted a large segment of the household expenditures of these migrant households and helped them to cope with climatic stresses.
Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
Like in other countries, lockdown measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic also heavily impacted the Bangladeshi internal migrants who came to the country's capital Dhaka and other metropolitan cities for earning a livelihood. The pandemic interrupted translocal livelihoods or at least made it more difficult to pursue such risk diversification strategies due to travel restrictions and lockdown measures. Migrants faced different problems such as difficulties in everyday commuting to their worksites, income insecurity and acute food shortages. Internal (and international) migrants were blamed for spreading the virus due to their mobility. When the government announced the lockdown in spring of 2020, millions of internal migrants from cities like Dhaka and Chittagong tried to return to their families, leading to overcrowded coaches, trains, and ferries. When migrants had just returned to their homes, a seemingly arbitrary announcement of the reopening of garment factories caused further tensions and panic among the migrant workers about whether and how they could return to their workplaces in the city. Many tried to return to their workplaces on foot.
Bangladesh’s location and high population density makes it one of the world’s countries most affected by slow and rapid onset events of climate change. Extreme climatic events have become more frequent in recent years, raising difficulties of many households in disaster-prone areas to adapt locally or to continue to pursue traditional livelihoods. Therefore, more and more households are now relying on income diversification strategies such as labour migration of at least one household member to urban areas. The remittances sent back from those household members serve as means to adapt to the effects of climatic stresses and shocks. Despite predictions of millions of people being forced to leave their homes in the future as a consequence of climate change, knowledge and understanding of climate change-related mobility is still insufficient. The government, development partners and civil society organisations need to increase efforts to plan for and respond to climate-induced migration to reduce vulnerability and help build resilience.