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South Asian Climate Refugees Need Protecting, Advocates Say

Pakistani residents gather next to the rubble of damaged house following an earthquake in Bajaur in October 2015.
Pakistani residents gather next to the rubble of damaged house following an earthquake in Bajaur in October 2015.

South Asia’s governments have failed to address the fact that millions of people have been forced to leave their homes because of climate change, according to a new report by three nonprofit groups.

Uprooted by cyclones, flash floods and other disasters, people who have had to turn to climate migration should get the same protection granted to political refugees, said the report by Climate Action Climate Action Network - South Asia, Bread for the World, and ActionAid.

Harjeet Singh, a spokesman in India for the South African-based ActionAid, says the region’s eight nations -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka -- should adopt policies and a treaty to help protect climate refugees.

The eight nations comprise the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), whose most recent diplomatic summit was postponed indefinitely this year amid tension between India and Pakistan.

"We share a common ecosystem, and we share common mountains, rivers, history, and culture," Singh said. "When these solutions need to be devised, we have to have common solutions."

He said SAARC should have policies under which people crossing borders due to environmental crises are recognized as refugees.

Under international law overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, created following World War II, refugees have an array of rights and due protection.

South Asia is the world's most disaster-prone region according to the UN. In recent years, it has suffered widespread droughts, heat waves, and cyclones that have led to crop failures, the report said.

Between 2008 and 2013, more than 46 million people fled their homes in South Asia following cyclones, flash floods, and earthquakes, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has estimated.

For example, Cyclone Roanu swept through South Asia's Bay of Bengal in May, destroying the homes of some 125,000 people and costing an estimated $1.7 billion in reconstruction costs, according to the report.

--Reporting by Sebastien Malo for Thompson Reuters Foundation