Bangladesh is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries due to its location and population density, which result in high levels of exposure and vulnerability. Tropical storms and cyclones regularly flood coastal areas and yearly monsoons affect much of the country. Thousands of displacements take place each year as a result of these disasters, often taking the form of life-saving pre-emptive evacuations. This is the result of decades of investment in community-based approaches to disaster risk reduction in the country. The majority of displacements associated with conflict are protracted cases dating back to the partitioning of the sub-continent in 1947 and the country’s independence in 1971.
In the first half of 2019, about 1.7 million new displacements were recorded in the country, 1,671,000 associated with disasters and 71 associated with conflict. Find out more about displacement in Bangladesh and other countries in the Mid-Year Figures Report.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
The vast majority of new displacements in Bangladesh are triggered by sudden-onset meteorological disasters such as floods, tropical storms and landslides. The number of new displacements triggered by conflict and violence is relatively small, but there are hundreds of thousands of people living in protracted displacement, many of them as a result of conflicts associated with the country’s independence in 1971.
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, in part because of its geography. Much of the country is made up of the low-lying Ganges-Brahamputra river delta, which is prone to flooding and empties into the Bay of Bengal, where tropical storms and cyclones regularly form and inundate coastal areas. The summer monsoon, which occurs roughly between May and September, also affects much of the country every year, and hazards sometimes coincide. These risks are compounded by climate change as sea levels rise, rainfall increases and the usual patterns of tropical storms and cyclones change at the same time as the Ganges-Brahamputra delta gradually sinks.
Low socioeconomic development, however, is also a major contributor to disaster risk, as is population density. With an average of 1,252 people per square kilometre in 2018, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The southern coast in particular is home to millions of people, many of them living in poor quality housing, who are at risk of being displaced by rapid-onset hazards, such as flooding and cyclones, that can destroy fragile housing. Increasingly, slow-onset hazards such as sea level rise and salinisation will cause displacement too. According to some projections, more than 35 million people from coastal areas are at risk of displacement by 2050. These factors combine to make Bangladesh the country second-most at risk of displacement associated with disasters in South Asia.
Although disasters continue to cause significant levels of displacement each year, they are no longer as lethal as they were in the past. After experiencing a series of devastating cyclones in the last century, particularly the 1991 cyclone, which killed more than 135,000 people, the government began to look into more consolidated approaches to disaster risk reduction and invested more heavily in preventative measures such as building flood shelters, early warning systems, and community engagement. The yearly death toll has, as a result, dropped significantly since its high point in the 1970s. Today, many people are displaced in the context of pre-emptive evacuations, that happen before the disaster has taken place.
The majority of IDPs displaced by conflict have been living in displacement since the 1970s and 80s as a result of territorial disputes that date back to the period after the country’s independence. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east, the Jumma community, which is made up of 11 indigenous groups, was displaced by conflict with landless Bengali people who moved into the area as part of a wider government move to change the region’s demographics. The conflict was officially resolved by a 1997 peace accord, but intercommunal violence has continued to trigger regular new displacements. The government passed the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act in 2001 and amended it in 2016 to resolve the ongoing conflicts, but tensions over land have continued.
Where and how do people move?
Bangladesh’s 19 coastal districts and those along major river banks are among those with the highest levels of disaster risk. The former are vulnerable to tropical storms and cyclones and the latter to riverine and flash floods. Families whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and aquaculture are particularly exposed because they live near the coast or rivers and may be displaced several times a year.
The majority of new displacements associated with disasters in 2018 were triggered by floods and riverbank erosion. More than 12,000 were displaced in Sylhet and Moulvibazar districts due to monsoon floods in June, and another 11,000 by floods in Gaibandha, Bogra, Jamalpur and Tangali districts in September. Also in September, riverbank erosion in Shariatpur district displaced as many as 44,000 people. These IDPs are likely to be facing long-term displacement, as their houses and most of their belongings were completely washed away. In 2017, tropical cyclone Mora and severe monsoon flooding combined caused about 914,000 displacements.
About 275,000 people live in protracted displacement in the Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The figure includes both indigenous and Bengali households living in temporary housing after being forced to leave their homes at least once between 1977, the start of the conflict, and 2007, the last time an in-depth study was conducted. New data is difficult to obtain, but insecurity continues to displace people. About 6,000 people were newly displaced in 2017 as a result of a land dispute that sparked intercommunal violence in mid-June.
About 151,000 Bihari IDPs were living in camp-like conditions across 116 informal urban settlements as of the end of 2017, the largest being Geneva camp in Dhaka, where about 30,000 people live in cramped conditions. Very little information is available about the exact population size of each settlement.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Repeated displacement triggered by regular sudden-onset disasters causes a range of negative outcomes, including livelihood loss, heightened food insecurity, lack of educational opportunities and increased risk of health problems such as water-borne and infectious diseases. Displaced women are also at higher risk of gender-based violence.
In the longer term, many agricultural households find themselves unable to absorb repeated economic losses - caused not only by sudden-onset disasters but also the impact of slow-onset phenomena such as salinisation - and may move to urban areas, such as the capital Dhaka, in search of work. The informal settlements they tend to live in carry disaster risks of their own. Others remain in the area of displacement where they stay on rented land or with relatives, but are forced to turn to daily labour as their main source of income.
Bihari IDPs’ living conditions are notoriously poor. Their settlements tend to be overcrowded, and lack sanitation and education facilities. The same is true of Jumma IDPs in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who are disadvantaged in a range of areas including access to land, adequate housing, health and education.
Where does the data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
Collecting comprehensive information on internal displacement in Bangladesh tends to be difficult. There are no humanitarian organisations dedicated to gathering data on displacement associated with disasters, so we draw our estimates instead from local and international media reports, disaster assessments conducted by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and reports from the Bangladesh shelter cluster. Information is generally more readily available at times of significant crisis. The Ministry of Disaster and Relief collects detailed information on the impacts of disasters, including evacuations and arrivals in shelters, but the language barrier makes full use of the data challenging.
It is also challenging to collect data on protracted displacement associated with conflict. Cases are not always well known, they are often politically sensitive and the areas where IDPs live tend to be difficult to access. We rely on reports from specialised NGOs such as the Human Development Research Centre for the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Al-Falah Foundation for the Bihari settlements.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Bangladesh includes two protracted displacement caseloads associated with conflict: The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) IDPs, displaced by internal armed conflict between 1973 and 1997, and Urdu-speaking Bihari IDPs, also known as “stranded Pakistanis”, displaced by Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Recently updated estimates of the size of these populations are not available. IDMC’s estimate for the CHT caseload is based on a 2009 survey by the Human Development Research Centre, a Bangladeshi NGO, which suggested about 31 per cent of rural CHT households had been displaced at least once between 1977 and 2007. Given this figure, along with census data, IDMC estimates there are 275,000 IDPs in Chittagong. IDMC’s estimate of the Bihari IDPs comes from a profiling study commission by UNHCR in 2006 and carried out by Al-Falah, a local NGO. This study indicated that more than 151,000 people were displaced in camps or informal settlements at the time.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is based on event monitoring using media sources.
What are governments currently doing to prevent and respond to displacement?
The Bangladeshi government published a specific policy on IDPs in 2015. The National strategy on the management of disaster and climate-induced internal displacement (NSMDCIID) recognises the growing risk of this type of displacement and the fact that being internally displaced infringes on many areas of human rights. It sets out a rights-based approach to address the phenomenon, and makes a series of suggestions to protect IDPs’ rights. It addresses prevention efforts in the “pre-displacement” phase, managing displacement and responding to humanitarian needs in the “displacement” phase and resolving it by the achievement of durable solutions in the “post-displacement” phase.
Other policies relevant to internal displacement tend to be in the area of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, because of the significant risks the country faces and to meet the requirements set out in international instruments such as the Sendai framework. One such policy is the National Plan for Disaster Management for 2010-2015, whose successor is still under draft. Another is the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, which was formulated with the Dutch government and seeks to map out the land-use planning and disaster management changes needed to meet growing pressures on the delta.