The Earth’s climate is changing. We are all witnessing the temperature rise, sudden-onset emergencies such as heat waves and floods growing in frequency and severity, and slow-onset hazards such as drought and rising sea levels intensify. Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people has been displaced by disasters every year which is equivalent to one person every second (IDMC). The immense impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic shows us how different our world looks like when mobility is curtailed. This story features two extraordinary women on the interlinkages between migration, environment and climate: Runa Khan, founder and director of the NGO Friendship, who works with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on preparedness, response and strengthening resilience, and Dina Ionesco, former Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, who supervises programmes and policies related to the MECC nexus and led IOM’s contributions to climate change negotiations.

Bangladesh, a country of a huge delta crossed by more than 300 rivers, is one of the most exposed and vulnerable countries in the world to floods, monsoons, cyclones, tropical storms and the “monga” (famine) season. The country is challenged by the climate impact throughout the year. “We do not control nature but rather the other way round – Nature controls our lives and often, our actions”, says Runa Khan. In 2020, disasters triggered 4.4 million new displacements in Bangladesh, most of them pre-emptive evacuations ahead of the landfall of Cyclone Amphan in May (IDMC GRID 2021). In Bangladesh, it is not about whether a disaster will occur. Rather, it remains unpredictable when, how frequent and how intense. Affected populations have no choice than to adapt.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work of Friendship’s and the IOM

Friendship’s mandate serves a total of 7 million beneficiaries – 6 million IDPs and nearly 1 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh – on four goals: poverty alleviation; empowerment of communities; saving lives by providing health when a disaster strikes; and climate action including preparedness, ensuring rehabilitation and proving trainings to communities to adapt to climate change by replanting mangrove trees along riverbanks.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, Friendship started producing masks to distribute among the communities in February last year. In March, its 4,000 staff members started to work from home, education was moved online. The reality in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar with about 1 million Rohingya refugees living in densely populated areas shows the tension of being trapped and the need to flee. After monsoon rains at the end of July, floods and landslides damaged shelters and camps. Preparedness and quick response are crucial here and awareness, hygiene practices must be put in place to minimize the transmission of the virus. Road blockages from the monsoons and COVID-19 restrictions have limited the nutrition support work, aid assessments, repair work and the overall response. What is particular about Friendship’s work is that their work is built on mobility: The NGO runs floating hospitals to reach people living on river islands to provide basic healthcare services. Other initiatives taken by Friendship include 24/7 health facilities operating in camps as well as mobile medical teams to respond to the crisis. Families of the affected areas were moved to mosques, schools and safe spaces for women.

On the other side of the world, in Geneva, the work in IOs such as IOM has not been paused either. The MECC Division has been at the forefront of operational, research, policy and advocacy efforts, bringing environmental migration to the heart of international, regional and national concerns in collaboration with its Member States, observers and partners. It is true that people can easily attend meetings from home without entering a plane. The first session of the International Dialogue on Migration (IDM) is a successful example held online, with a variety of speakers representing from different regions as well as pre-recorded videos sent in by high-level speakers instead of coming all the way. However, the major impact of the pandemic on the organization’s work has been on the (inter)personal relations due to the disruption of direct human interactions. “Our team has been resilient and supportive of one another. Yet, we lose our efficiency and quality of our exchanges”, says Dina Ionesco.

In early 2020, the MECC division worried that its thematic area would lose its momentum as the spotlight was shifted to health responses. Yet, it has become clear that COVID-19 is redefining migration patterns worldwide. “This reminds us how much our contemporary world is and has historically been shaped by human movements within and across borders”, Ionesco explains. In March 2020, IOM launched a special blog series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment showcasing the existing research on this topic from a community of practice that includes academics, the civil society and international organizations. IOM is positioned in this community due to their longstanding expertise on migration in the context of climate change since the 1990s. Ionesco recognizes the potential to work more closely on the interlinkages between health, climate and the impacts of migration, but more capacities need to be invested on joint issues such as vulnerability to shocks that are also connected to poverty, inequalities and gender, trapped populations, people in camps, access to services to migrants and the connections to climate actions and policies in place. She also sees the emerging importance of the local level as a concrete space of action. In the past years, it was mainly the regional level where IOM has been influencing policies to include climate and environmental concerns such as in regional consultative processes.

Lessons learnt from the pandemic so far – and imagining a possible post-COVID world

It is the crisis of our generation. We all live and experience it differently. First of all, we have to come to understand that the pandemic is likely to stay and not, as previously assumed, a temporary health issue. Rather, Khan calls for a holistic approach: “The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that unless all of us are safe, none of us are safe. It is the same for our ecosystem – this planet belongs to all of us, animals, plants and every single living creature needs to live, and respecting that.” She also suggests seeing the interlinkages between climate change and pandemics. Research showed that ending the destruction of the natural environment can stop pandemics more (cost-)effectively than coping with their implications.

The recent wildfires in Southern Italy, Greece and Turkey, as well as the floods in West Germany and Eastern Belgium are only few examples demonstrating that disaster displacement does not merely affect small island states or countries in the Global South. This is also a reminder to the world that does not often experience disasters. “There is a momentum where the world wakes up and realizes we are all in this together”, Khan highlights. “All the Runa’s and Greta’s are just one part of the process, but every single one of us needs to take action.” Local, urban and rural governments should be supported to integrate migration, climate change and environmental concerns. Researchers, politicians, policy makers, the private sector, migrant and refugee representatives, youth initiatives, mayors and the civil society are all active change makers. Moreover, Ionesco encourages to strengthen a virtuous evidence-policy-action cycle where available evidence and existing policy commitments translate into operational activities and vice versa, operational orientations should feed policy and knowledge building work, as outlined in IOM’s Institutional Strategy on Migration, Environment and Climate Change.

For both Khan and Ionesco, the key values for responsible and sustainable action are humility and working in solidarity to ensure affected communities are empowered. “Everyone wants to live a better life, to live a life with dignity, no matter whether you are internally displaced, fleeing or stateless”, Khan explains. “Nobody is immune to the virus,” As everyone is impacted by the pandemic, so shall they be impacted in a far greater way  by climate change; but marginalized and vulnerable people are and will be experiencing it much harder due to the lack of resources and access to supportive services. Today healthcare is concentrated in a few privileged populations. Only 0.6% of Covid-19 vaccines administered to-date have gone to people in low-income countries. With new variants on the way, vaccines must be made accessible to all. “For some of us who have the privilege to be safe can reflect on the way we live our lives, our impact on others, on nature, what we leave to the next generations, where our freedom starts and ends”, Ionesco adds thoughtfully. There is a need for systems to be better prepared in order to cope with the fragility of our society. The pandemic will not solve any existing problem, but mobility can be part of the solution to adapt to new challenges.


Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the interviews with Runa Khan and Dina Ionesco were held via Zoom on 13 July and 28 July 2021. This feature story was written by Hoang Tran Hieu Hanh as part of the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action