Published 01 June 2018
Climate change is already the reality for people living in rural Bangladesh. The people living in the rural coastal belt are experiencing cyclone threats, flooding, sea-level rise and saltwater inundations, which has resulted in reduced crop yields and farmland salinisation.1 These factors are contributing to the mass rates of internal migration from rural Bangladesh to larger cities, such as Dhaka.
Dhaka is a crowded megacity with a population of more than 15 million people. Newly arrived migrants are forced into slums, which are already a ‘refuge’ to thousands of displaced peoples.2 Those living on the streets of Dhaka are exposed to poor sanitation, food and water insecurity, and disease, and lack the necessary capabilities to recover from shock events such as floods.3
Photographers Nellie Le Beau and Hugh Tuckfield aim to bring awareness to the experiences of climate migrants and refugees in Dhaka, through their photographic exhibitions which portray marginalised peoples in Bangladesh who have been displaced by climate change. Below, we talk to Nellie and Hugh about photographing climate change refugees.
What are the conditions like for those living in the streets and parks of Dhaka? Are there government or aid services who are assisting climate migrants?
It’s as if there has been a war or a catastrophic event, and thousands and thousands of people have been displaced and are living in every available piece of public land throughout Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh—but without Red Cross tents or public attention to house and protect them from the trauma of living on the street. Young girls and boys are subject to trafficking and other sexual and physical abuses; there are labour abuses, assaults, insufficient public toilets and showers and shelter for these people—who are the labourers of Bangladesh—the rickshaw drivers and vegetable vendors and recyclers and garment workers and domestic labourers of the country. It is hard to describe, but in every bus station, port, next to mosques and parliament buildings, in every park—are people, living, without any shelter: children, infants, the elderly, thousands and thousands of them. They live under tarps and on stacks of newspapers, they live on the footpaths and in empty buildings of these cities.
There are a few NGOs providing health care, a place to bathe, a place to get drinking water. One or two NGOs hold classes in the parks for children living on the streets. But these programs do not begin to meet the need for shelter and dignity for these people, a need that steadily grows as Dhaka shuts down its slums to make room for higher income housing—pushing even more people on the streets. Every year, at least 500,000 new people migrate into Dhaka from the countryside. Historically, many of these migrants moved into Dhaka’s slums, but the slums now are overcrowded and too expensive for these incoming migrants. Their only option is to live in alleyways and under bridges. There are no stated government strategies to care for them.
How did you both become aware of these issues, and what inspired you to document climate migration and the refugee crisis in your photography?
We went to Bangladesh to better understand another refugee situation but were confronted everywhere with climate change refugees throughout Dhaka. We spent time with them, and they asked us to photograph them and get their story out to people who might be able to make a difference in their lives, who might be able to advocate for their shelter. We had read about climate change refugees beforehand, but only as statistical projections for the year 2020 or 2050, or as part of a greater academic debate about whether to call them climate displaced peoples or climate change, refugees. We had no idea there were actual human beings living in these conditions, on the streets of the world’s cities today, as a result of the effects of climate change.
What does your exhibit aim to achieve? What are some of the assumptions about refugees that your work aims to debunk?
We want to portray the refugees as we met them: in vital colour, with energy, as real people to pay attention to: not as black and white images, which we often see as a style of photographing refugees. We wanted these photographs to be as vivid as the subjects are. These climate change refugees in Bangladesh are not just statistical projections or representational images of suffering and displacement. They are real people, as real as your neighbours and family.
Before they were displaced, they were farmers and fishermen; school children and grandmothers. They had homes and were simply forced off their land due to environmental issues that have been well studied. It is time to create solutions for their displacement, and this is the goal of the exhibit: to encourage people to quickly shelter these climate displaced refugees. Billions of dollars have been set aside and spent in Bangladesh for climate change mitigation, yet we are aware of no housing project, or shelter plan for these pavement dwellers, as they call themselves, and whose numbers keep growing. We hope to encourage researchers and policymakers to focus their attention on these individuals, create a census, create a plan for shelter and permanent housing. Climate change displacement is happening in Bangladesh today, and beginning to happen elsewhere—we can create solutions now that will help not only the climate change refugees of Bangladesh but refugees around the world as they leave their original homes for safer locations.
In your experience, how effective a tool has photography been in communicating the extent of the refugee crisis, climate change and inequality?
Photography can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about the scope of the overall refugee situation around the world, which we feel is not a crisis but an opportunity for responsible global action. We believe more work needs to be done linking climate change to inequality and current displacement and then linking those photographic images to action. We hope there will be more of these stories told, with an accompanying call for solutions. Of course, it is not enough to just take pictures, or be aware of injustice and climate change after seeing an exhibition. The critical next step is to take action and focus our efforts on concretely addressing issues of climate justice for peoples around the world, including the pavement dwellers of Bangladesh.
1. Marshall, R., & Rahman, S. (2014). Internal Migration in Bangladesh: Character, Drivers and Policy Issues. United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh. Access here.
2. Khairuzzaman, Z.A.M. (2011). Providing shelter for the street people in Dhaka. The Daily Star, Bangladesh (October 18, 2011). Access here.
3. McPherson, P. (2015). Dhaka: the city where climate refugees are already a reality. The Guardian (December 1, 2015). Access here.
Nellie Le Beau and Hugh Tuckfield (PhD candidate, Department of Government and International Relations) work on issues of social and environmental justice, migration, and the impacts of climate change on communities and the land. They have lectured and exhibited their photographs advocating for the internally displaced refugees of Bangladesh in Australia, the UK, and Poland, and have published their photographs and essays addressing climate change displacement in The Diplomat Magazine and Forced Migration Review.