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Climate Justice in the Rohingya Crisis

Author: Marcel Bandur

Since 25 August 2017, extreme violence of ethnic cleansing has driven an estimated 693,000 Rohingya refugees across the border from Myanmar’s western Rakhine (Arakan) state to Bangladesh’s South-eastern Upazila of Teknaf (ISCG 2018). At the peak of the violence, one hundred thousand Rohingyas crossed the river into Bangladesh in one day. Not being allowed to work in Bangladesh and without a legal recognition in Myanmar, Rohingyas are stuck in limbo.

Institutionalised discrimination, widespread persecution, and communal violence are amongst the main reasons for the exodus of Muslim Rohingya from the Buddhist-majority (63.32%) Rakhine state. The impact of systematic oppression on the escalation of violence cannot be overstated. However, when examining the roots of this sectarian conflict, the topography of the Rakhine state provides unexpected clues into underlying environmental causalities. Rakhine is a coastal low-laying region susceptible to cyclones, floods, landslides, and saltwater intrusion. Cyclone Giri in 2010 affected 260,000 people in the Rakhine state. From July to October 2011, nearly 1.7 million tons of rice was lost due to heavy rain and flooding. In mid-2015, Rakhine state was hit by severe floods, declaring it a natural disaster zone. Malaria outbreaks and water-borne diseases render the population in the Rakhine state especially vulnerable. With growing resource scarcity caused by environmental disasters, Rohingya are regarded as competitors for dwindling resources.

Myanmar: Village Tract Population of Areas affected by the 2015 Floods - Rakhine State (PDF)

There is strong evidence that suggests a causal link between climate change-induced environmental degradation and armed conflict. Instances of climate-related disasters lead to outbreaks of violence, especially in ethnically fractionalised societies marked by polarised subgroups, poor governance, and social inequalities (Schleussner et al. 2016, Homer-Dixon 1999). While policies of systematic ethnic-cleansing are the leading driver of communal violence, the destabilising effect of climate change acts as a threat multiplier. This is also known as climatic shocks, acting as risk multipliers that aggravate often fragile inter-ethnic relations and dire socio-political milieu. Research suggests that 23% of violent clashes in ethnically-fractionalised societies were preceded by climate calamities (Schleussner et al. 2016). Although there is no simple direct relation between climate change-exacerbated extreme weather and violent conflicts, “the disruptive nature of these events seems to play out in ethnically-fractionalised societies in a particularly tragic way,” (Schleussner et al. 2016)

"These latest satellite images show why over half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just four weeks,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.
Map of villages destroyed in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung Townships [Human Rights Watch]

To understand Rohingya’s social exclusion and the climate-induced conflict, it is essential to look beyond religious and ethnic divides, especially towards root causes of widespread abuse, vulnerability, and displacement. The escalation of violent attacks against Rohingya was preceded by policies of “opening up” in 2011. This policy came as a reaction to Myanmar’s unprecedented economic growth, seeking transformative economic and political reforms. Myanmar was the fastest growing economy in 2016 with 8.6% projected real GDP growth. However, the economic growth also had the undesirable effect of harming the have-nots. The management and distribution of farmland privileged the middle-class and land grabbing practices further ostracised the Rohingya. This expulsion inflicted on the most vulnerable groups is a prime example of institutionalised social exclusion.

Seeking relative safety in the neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are generating a new environmental disaster for the fragile forest-covered region. Around 4,000 acres of forested hills have been cleared at an alarming rate, turning trees into makeshift shelters and fuel. This forest fragmentation aggravates the exposure of refugee camps to deforestation-related disasters, such as landslides, desertification, and the depletion of groundwater supplies. With 800 tons of wood needed daily, around 1,000 football fields of timber are needed to supply the refugees for a single year (Ahmed 2018). Half of the government-owned forests for the 15-year old Social Forestry Programme have been decimated. Intended as an elephant reserve, the elephants’ natural habitat fell victim to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Reports of elephants trampling Rohingyas desperately seeking wood in the now-barren land of muddy hills are far too common. The topography of this area has been completely altered, as clearly seen on satellite imagery.

Before and after: Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, inhabited mostly by Rohingya Muslims that have fled from religious persecution in neighboring Myanmar. Copyright is: Pléiades © CNES 2017, Distribution Airbus DS

Just as climate change exacerbated the conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the very same conflict acts as a catalyst of a climate change-induced disaster in Bangladesh’s Teknaf Upazila. The UN Agency Plan for repatriating Rohingya refugees raises questions of inclusivity on both sides of the border. Are the Rohingyas both victims and perpetrators of climate change-induced disasters? How to apply climate justice to the displaced Rohingyas, the decimated areas of Bangladesh, and the burnt villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state?

The Rohingya crisis is an extraordinary case of the impact of climate change on a highly vulnerable ethnic minority. Examining the Rohingya refugee crisis through the conceptual lens of climate justice reveals significant links of climate change and armed conflict as interconnected multipliers of cross-border displacement.


Ahmed, K., 2018. Bangladeshi forests stripped bare as Rohingya refugees battle to survive. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2018].

Homer-Dixon, T. F., 1999. Environment, Scarcity, Violence. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press

ISCG, 2018. Situation Report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 June 2018].

Schleussner, C. et al, 2016. Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries. PNAS, 113/33, 9216-9221.

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