Influx of intra district migrants in search of life
I have been living in Dhaka since my birth. My family migrated to Dhaka from a small city in the 1970s in search of better job opportunities. They were neither forced nor displaced by any kind of emergency or crisis, rather big cities’ pull factors might have worked for them. But most people in Bangladesh, who move at various scales are usually influenced by diverse reasons; pull or push factors; economic opportunities; local unrest, or environmental risks.
While working in the Pani Jibon Project with Helvetas Swiss Intercorporation, I have come to know various migrants’ stories from Bagerhat and Khulna, who migrated due to severe disruption of social and economic functions by repeated cyclones and tidal surges. These unbearable miseries of local migrants never came to the limelight, nor did they get any attention or support from local authorities. Here are three stories from the ground.
Living life on the edge
The story is about 30 years old Noorjahan, displaced from Gabtola, a riverside village under Morrelganj Upazila in Bagerhat district. In search of a better living, her family moved to Dhaka and somehow managed a job in a garment factory.
They could not stay long, considering the high living cost in Dhaka, they had to move back to their village. Her husband picked up his previous uncertain and unstable fishing as the only livelihood. Noorjahan stated, “During the last ten years, I had to change my home six times in search of a better life and stable livelihoods.”
Neither her father nor her husband owned land of their own. They were living in floating homes in cities or at someone’s abandoned space in the village. “We always lived in someone else’s mercy as we don’t have any. The fear is always there to be thrown out any time,” Noorjahan shared.
After her return to the village around 2007, the area was severely smashed by Cyclone ‘Sidr’, and she lost almost everything she had relied on. After the recovery period, she somehow started with the bare minimum she had. But, life had a different plan for her. After two years, the village was severely attacked by ‘Aila’, the tidal surge flooded all of Noorjahan’s belongings.
She had to step under the open sky again and restart from ground zero. Noorjahan is not working anymore after the cyclone because of the unavailability of menial works in the village. Before the Aila, she used to work as a soil leveller, or any other work available. She also started raising ducks, which was flooded away by Aila. She shared that there is a long process of distributing labour work in her village, as there are not sufficient opportunities for all.
There is a system of lottery by which one can be hired for work. Her name did not show up this year, and that is why she did not find any work. “So, these days my husband has to bear all the household costs alone”, she added. Being a fisherman, her husband tried to cover the living costs alone by catching fish in flooded water in the village, besides that he sometimes repairs boats outside the village. Noorjahan was a victim of involuntary displacement even though she constantly tried to adapt to a new environment and struggle.
Regaining life through multiple journeys
Riazul is a 37 years old man from Bhasandal under the Gulishakhali union in Morrelganj Upazila, Bagerhat Like other villages in Bangladesh, agriculture was the main livelihood option for the community. His father had no land to cultivate and used to work as an agricultural labourer in other people’s land.
Due to an accident, he had to stop working. The village tolerated extreme cyclone Sidr more than a decade ago, still carrying its effects, and damages can be spotted including human lives. Riazul’s family is one of the victims of that disaster. He was already in a bitter situation because of his fathers’ accident; in addition, Sidr made it worse. “The villagers were not rich, but people could live with whatever they had,” Riazul remembers. “There was plenty of fish in the wetland. We could fish enough within 10-15 minutes of our casting nets”, he added.
After Sidr, trees were uprooted and vegetable lands were destroyed, either inundated or turned saline and barren. Riazul said, “My life would be quite smoother if the cyclone had not hit us and damaged our fishing pond. I would not need to be in such a frequent move and engage in hard manual labour work if I could restart my fish farm.” After Sidr, they took a loan of Tk30,000 to rebuild their house. He took a further loan to restart their fish farm. However, they could not gain any profit.
He had to migrate to other adjacent districts and work two long years, to overcome the damage and loss of this cyclone. After clearing all debts, he moved back to his village. Now, he frequently goes to bigger cities like Chattogram on and off and works there as a day labourer in construction work. “When I come back to the village during the off-season, I drive a motorcycle to carry passengers to the city points like Khulna, Bagerhat,” Riazul said.
The essence of living in different cities
Sometimes, life turns out in such a strange way, that we do not perceive whether we move forward or step back. Shiuli is one of the witnesses of life circumstances. She was born and brought up in the village of Bhandarpur under Koira Upazila in Khulna district.
Her village is in the lap of the mangrove forest Sundarbans. She shared, “My poor family married me off when I was only 13 years old.” In the early 2000s, at the time of her marriage, her husband had no land of his own and he used to be a rickshaw puller during the dry seasons in adjacent cities.
During the rainy seasons, when all the areas got flooded, he jointly with other people used to go to the Sundarbans to catch fish and to collect timbers. The government’s restrictions on logging and fishing in the Sundarbans negatively affected her husband’s income. Since income sources in the village became very limited, her husband started seasonal migration during the harvesting season and rickshaw pulling.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck the village and smashed away everything. Shiuli with her daughter went to Jashore, where her husband was working as a rickshaw puller. They lived there for a couple of years until her husband decided to move to Khulna city with the hope to increase income. However, they could not sustain their life in Khulna because of high living costs and returned to the village. Once back to the village, Shiuli had to face more challenges.
She recalled, “There were lush green paddy fields before. The whole village has turned into wetlands because of tidal surges and cyclones. The soil has turned saline and barren. Instead of the paddy crop that was standing earlier, now you can only see puddles. Cultivation is not possible anymore. So some people are trying to cultivate shrimp in these new puddles.”
Her husband failed to find any suitable work in the village. He spent all his savings. Even Shiuli became frustrated in raising ducks or hens as she could not feed them. Growing vegetables in her homestead were also difficult as the soil was very saline. Then, Shiuli and her husband decided to work together in various brick kilns in Magura and Jashore. They continued working for six months leaving their daughter with her grandparents.
They were not in a comfortable situation leaving their daughter alone in the village. “My situation forced me to marry off my daughter at an age 15 to release some burden from our shoulders, just like my parents did”, Shiuli shared. “We kept moving from one place to another, grabbing occupation one after another. But we are yet to settle our life. Together with my husband, we have now been struggling for the last 17 years to find a stable life with a regular income,” she said.
These stories are filled with incidents of successes, failures, and mixed experiences of individuals' lives after deciding to live differently. The stories neither tried to establish a thought against or favour of the concept of migration nor tried to conclude any line for climate-induced migration. Migration is a process, no one can limit this. An administrative boundary may provide tremendous opportunities and prospects, even then people will migrate. Different factors work for different migrants in a dissimilar way. That is why it is always very difficult to draw a single line.
The coastal region always remains under the potential risk of climatic events and natural disasters throughout the year. Livelihood opportunities, sense of place, and risk perception are considered, thus influencing the decision of migration. Although the new environment offers probable benefits, at the same time imposes unanticipated challenges. From the stories, it can be realized that migration is not generally the preferred choice rather it is a reactive action.
From Riazul’s story, we saw that his coping strategy is taking up loans. Most affected households take loans to invest in livelihoods activities like livestock rearing, fish farming, crab fattening, or agricultural production to recover from the misery. Despite having several experiences of unsuccessful migration with such bitter experiences, Noorjahan took the risk of giving her life another chance. She and her husband were involved in temporary livelihood options like the reconstruction of the road, soil levelling, repairing embankment undertaken by the government after a sudden onset event.
The seasonal migration of Riazul has been considered “successful” because he managed to clear all his loans. Riazul states, “The fear always exists of the unpredictability of weather when the next cyclone or flood attacks the area and flashes away everything and puts us at square again.”
Shuili has a different point of view. She had partial successful migration. Everything worked out well when it was within a small town, but big cities did not turn out all aligned. With time this kind of people like to move further away, corresponding to the so-called stepping-stone pattern, from smaller, nearby towns to larger, more distant cities or even abroad.
After experiencing unsuccessful migration one after another, Noorjahan tried to find a survival strategy to live again and smile with an empty eye, states “I do not know how long we can survive like this”! Migrants like Noorjahan or Shiuli do not know, what will happen next, they keep moving. These stories are just picked up from the ground among thousands unattended.
These scenarios depict what may happen after a family migrates from a rural to an urban area with a bigger hope to survive. For marginal people, there is no end in migration, whether it is successful or unsuccessful. They cannot decide to migrate, rather they are somewhat forced by climate alteration, socio-economic degradation, or just the sake of survival.
Major societal and governance challenges arise when there is a huge influx of migrants in urban cities. The loss of identity or belonging to a place can have a decisive impact on a human’s life. These people are still searching for their identity, well-being, and life. In this context, the Government of Bangladesh acknowledged environmental migrants in urban settings in the Eighth Five-Year Plan.
There is a long way to go to understand the discourse of climate-induced migration. Before reaching any conclusion or making any policy-level decision, it would be wise to explore and analyze more to bring out the real picture from the field and to find out the most effective way to deal with it to ensure resilience and well-being for the climate-vulnerable community.
Moumita Sen is working in Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation as a Junior Programme Officer under Climate Change and DRR, her research interest lies in Urban Disaster. Can be reached at [email protected]
The stories are taken from the study “Insights on Human Mobility in the Context of Climate Change: Action Research Conducted in the Southwest Coastal Belt of Bangladesh” by OKUP and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.