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There are many people who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
At COP26, the global climate change summit now going on in Glasgow, for example, we have heard about the plight of “climate refugees.” These are people whose ability to earn a meaningful livelihood is permanently impacted by unseasonal rains, harsher winters, drier summers and other impacts attributed to the changing climate.
And so they may have to find a new home in order to survive. They will become climate refugees.
Studies by the World Bank predict that as many as 216 million people in six regions of the world may be forced to move by 2050. This includes communities in some of the most impoverished regions of the world such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
While there is lots to do to address the needs of climate refugees, increased attention and awareness by global agencies are offering early rays of hope.
But there is another category of people who suffer from climate change and have no recourse. They’re rarely mentioned. In fact, they’re practically invisible at the COP26 climate change conference.
They’re the stateless.
Who are the stateless of the world? They are individuals who live in countries that do not grant them citizenship or permanent residency – and all the rights that come with citizenship, such as free education and health care. They number in the millions. They include the Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar, North Koreans in China, the Roma in Serbia and many other groups.
They may live in communities affected by heat waves and unseasonal rains that devastate their informal and poorly organized settlements. Excluded from schools and with limited job options, facing xenophobia from the authorities and citizens, they often have no choice but to live in slums and informal settlements. Rainwater mixes with wastewater and in the absence of a robust sewage and sanitation system, stays in stagnant pools for months, exponentially increasing the risk of waterborne illnesses, such as diarrheal diseases.
But packing up and moving is, if not impossible, then highly unlikely for the stateless. The high cost of moving and the risk of harassment and persecution outside their community of fellow stateless individuals make any move a potentially disastrous decision.
In Pakistan, there are millions of ethnic Bengalis, many of whom remain stateless. Noor is a member of the stateless Bengali community in Pakistan. Considered sympathizers with a hostile state, they may face harassment, hostility and even violence. Among the poorest in the country, they reside in urban slums like Machar colony in the city of Karachi, a slum where sanitation systems do not exist with the exception of homemade informal systems developed by locals. Diseases are rampant and health care is available only for those who can pay for procedures in private clinics.
Noor asked that his last name not be used out of fear that the authorities could persecute him if he is seen as being critical: Criticism of the authorities can have serious consequences for those who are not considered bona fide citizens. Now in his late 30s, he has lived with his wife and kids in Machar colony all his life. He runs a small grocery store.
Noor believes climate change is having an impact on his life and the lives of his family. There are increased dry spells, which lead to bad quality air – and lots of dust in summer and fall, he says. The dust was not there a few years ago, he says – and his children were healthier. Now, he says, they often have a chronic cough and even develop chest infections. But he typically cannot afford to pay to take them to the doctor and so relies on home remedies – and trips to the emergency room when their health falters if he has enough money for the out-of-pocket costs.
He also says that there is less produce to sell in his shop, as unseasonable dryness and sudden rains are taking a toll on local farms.
Like Noor, Feroza is also a resident of the Machar Colony. Feroza, who asked that her last name not be used for similar reasons as Noor’s, is a traditional birth attendant who goes to people’s homes to deliver babies. The unprecedented rains in Karachi over the last three years have wreaked havoc, she says. Waist-high water and flowing sewage have filled homes, including hers, she says. It has been difficult for her children to go to school during the rains and for her to go about her business.
The conditions that Noor and Feroza are facing are increasingly being recognized as the consequences of a changing climate. Similar patterns of unpredictable dry and wet spells are being seen in cities across the world.
But because of their state of statelessness, we believe they are likely to fall through the cracks of international attention – and suffer the most as climate change impacts grow. Limited financial resources, lack of education and negligence by local and international media make their problems invisible to the rest of the world.
The discourse on climate refugees is a positive development in efforts to protect and support those who are most vulnerable But the stateless need to be included in any conversation about permanent, inclusive, sustainable and ethical solutions. Otherwise, our approaches would only widen the gap between the privileged and the persecuted.
Tahera Hasan is a lawyer, human rights activist and the founder and director of Imkaan Welfare Organization, working primarily in stateless communities in Karachi with a focus on legal aid, health, solid waste and learning and recreation.
Muhammad Hamid Zaman is a professor in biomedical engineering and international health at Boston University, with a research focus on health-care access among the forcibly displaced. He is co-founder of Boston University’s Initiative on Forced Displacement.