Caught between climate and virus threats, migrants have no safe place to go

  • >>Thomson Reuters Foundation
    Published: 2020-05-08 13:16:23 BdST

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An internally displaced Afghan girl plays outside her shelter amid the spread of the coronavirus disease in Kabul. REUTERS

Ali Mohammad, a 50-year-old Afghan nomad, lost most of his sheep to a harsh drought in 2018. The following year, his home was destroyed by floods that also killed his son and two daughters.

These days he lives in a camp for displaced people in Herat province, with his surviving teenage daughter. They are cold, hungry and cannot meet their basic needs, according to a new report on climate migration in South Asia.

"Increasingly, people in Afghanistan are being displaced not by conflict but by the impacts of climate change," said Massoud Eiman of the Tadbeer Consulting and Research Organisation in Afghanistan.

"It is an untold story and many families, like Ali’s, are suffering, living in limbo without protection, and struggling to get by," he added in a statement on the report published by the Climate Action Network South Asia and charity ActionAid.

Now those forced from their homes by weather-related disasters in impoverished, war-ravaged Afghanistan - about 1.2 million people at the end of 2019 - must also contend with the threat of the novel coronavirus.

Since the outbreak began, Afghanistan has registered more than 3,600 cases and over 100 deaths from COVID-19. Eiman said infection rates were likely much higher - including among displaced people - than low levels of testing might suggest.

Before the pandemic, he visited several camps in Herat, bordering virus-slammed Iran, where he saw people living more than 10 to a small tent without clean drinking water, healthcare or sanitation.

"Social distancing cannot be properly observed and due to lack of access to adequate food, health services and proper shelter... risk of infection by coronavirus is higher among the displaced people," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Migration experts are worried that the COVID-19 respiratory disease could spread quickly in crowded, unhygienic camps and also in centres where people shelter to stay safe in storms or floods, or because their homes have been destroyed.

OUT IN THE COLD

Justin Ginnetti, head of data and analysis at the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), said there were already examples - from the Philippines to North America - of people being turfed out of shelters or governments not opening evacuation centres due to coronavirus concerns.

"People who are fleeing disaster hazards are either having to sleep outdoors or being sent back home to vulnerable conditions," he said.

Figures issued last month by the IDMC showed that, in 2019, wild weather forced about 24 million people from their homes, either temporarily or for longer periods.

That included 4.5 million who fled Cyclone Fani in India and Bangladesh, cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique and Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

Ginnetti and others warned that such pressures are likely to increase as large parts of the Americas and Asia face the onset from June of hurricane and cyclone seasons, as well as the monsoon in South Asia.

Alex Randall, who coordinates the Climate and Migration Coalition, said that in 2020, strategies to protect people from weather disasters by moving them could clash with virus lockdowns or travel curbs, causing confusion, tensions and even violence.

Evacuating people on shared transport could expose them to infection, as could putting them up in community facilities like sports centres or schools, he told a recent webinar on the challenges.

"Some countries that suffer the worst impacts of climate change will encounter a situation where it is those climate change impacts and the displacement (they) create which additionally hampers them in preventing the spread of COVID-19," he said.

NO SOCIAL PROTECTION

Harjeet Singh, global climate lead for ActionAid, said South Asia's upcoming monsoon season would be extremely tough, with most humanitarian agencies yet to work out a plan for how to respond alongside a pandemic.

In India, for example, there has been an exodus of migrant workers from cities who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 lockdowns and had no option but to head back to their villages, some walking hundreds of kilometres to get there.

They and their families now face monsoon floods and cyclones with very little money in reserve and slim chances of finding work in stagnant rural economies, said Delhi-based Singh.

Meanwhile, governments at national and state level have lost large chunks of their revenues during the shutdown and may not be in a financial position to provide emergency relief as usual, he noted.

Singh said the COVID-19 crisis had exposed the tenuous situation of poor migrants who move to cities in search of work, increasingly because severe droughts or frequent floods back home make it impossible to survive off their land.

"Migration cannot be seen just as an adaptation strategy because they are not living in a safe (urban) environment where they are getting access to basic services, security and protection," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Government measures were needed both to provide migrants with essentials like food, education and shelter, and to help farmers and rural communities become more resilient to climate change so they do not have to leave, Singh added.

"COVID-19 is a reality check," he said.