In an increasingly globalized world, the flows of people worldwide are growing rapidly—in both numbers and complexity. In recent years, many major headlines regarding migration have emanated from South Asia. With scores of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, targeted policies against Muslims in India, and escalating climate change across the subcontinent, one can’t help but wonder—is South Asia on the brink of a migration crisis?

From Myanmar to Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees of Rakhine

The recent movement of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into neighbouring countries—predominately to Bangladesh—is one of the largest migration flows seen in South Asia’s history. Suffering generations of persecution and targeted violence as a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Rohingya have undergone successive waves of emigration since the 1990s, the largest and most recent of which beginning in 2017. Over 742,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since 2017, with the vast majority ending up in refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar.

The presence of international assistance has increased in the region to address the growing desperation of Rohingya refugees. On Canada’s part, the Trudeau government committed $300 million of international assistance in 2018 to be dispersed over 3 years. Despite commitments such as these, the situation in Myanmar has not improved—3,000 Rohingya recently approved for repatriation in a joint effort by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have refused to return, insisting that conditions in Rakhine state remain unsafe.

Cognizant that humanitarian aid has failed to resolve the situation, Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar with the International Court of Justice on November 11, 2019, accusing its government of acts of genocide against the Rohingya. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was quick to signal that Canada will support Gambia’s lawsuit in any way it can. It remains to be seen whether legal action can stave off further crises and remedy a case where aid has failed the Rohingya people.

India: Anti-Muslim Nature of Recent Policies

Two recent policies passed by the newly re-elected Modi government have the potential to place further pressure on migration flows within the region—namely, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.

In brief, the NRC is a register of all of Indian citizens residing in the state of Assam. Through compiling this list, the Indian government singled out nearly 2 million individuals to face potential deportation—the vast majority of whom are of Assam’s Bengali Muslim minority. Moreover, on October 31, 2019, the Modi government stripped Jammu and Kashmir—the predominately Muslim region disputed by India and Pakistan since 1947—of its special status as a semi-autonomous state, effectively nullifying its state constitution, folding it into India’s federalist system, and allowing it no greater privilege than any other Indian state.

Governing under the auspices of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the Modi administration has evidently targeted areas with larger Muslim populations. By exacerbating the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, these policies may prove to foster a strong “push factor” for India’s Muslim population to emigrate to neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan, effectively compounding the tensions that already exist in the region.

Across the Subcontinent: Threats of Climate Migration

The world is facing a climate crisis and we are already seeing the effects of it—in some regions more than others, including South Asia. Soil degradation, poor air quality, rising temperatures, and severe flooding are all symptoms of climate change that are manifesting themselves across the subcontinent. If substantial action is not taken to mitigate climate change, South Asian countries are at serious risk of becoming unlivable in our lifetime.

For the first time, in 2018, climate change was recognized by the United Nations as a driving factor in migration, with the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration. This recognition is a good start at legitimizing the concerns of climate migrants, but it is certainly not sufficient. International efforts will need to be strong and sustained in order to mitigate or, at the very least, address the looming migration crisis that climate change will likely pose for South Asia.

As each of these issues compound one another and it appears that South Asia may be inching towards a migration crisis beyond its capacity to control, we must think of the overarching problems that are fueling these tensions and pushing people to migrate. After all, people only migrate when their prospects or quality of life are more favourable elsewhere. In this way, migration is inherently a development issue—with underdeveloped social justice structures, economies, and climate adaptation capacities, people in South Asia are pushed to move, either within the subcontinent or beyond. If the international community is truly interested in easing migrant flows and staving off a migration crisis, attention must be drawn to fundamental development issues across the region.



Karly Hurlock is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in International Development Policy. She completed her BA in History and Political Science at the University of Guelph, followed by an MA in History at Carleton University. Her previous research focused on the effects of Indian nuclear policy on Canadian development assistance to India. Her research interests include: Canadian relations with South Asia, migration and remittances, and the history of Canadian aid. Karly can be reached at

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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