Welcome recognition of first-ever ‘pollution’ refugee

This level of pollution is common in Dhaka. Many elderly people with breathing problems have, in recent years, been forced to leave the city in search of fresher air elsewhere. — AFP

THE recent verdict by a French court stopping the deportation of an unnamed Bangladeshi on the grounds of deadly air pollution in Dhaka has raised eyebrows around the world. In some Bangladesh newspapers and portals, an undertone of ridicule and aspersion against the assumed lack of patriotism in him was evident.

Environmentalists, however, celebrated it as a landmark ruling because governments will now have to take tackling air pollution as a matter of urgency to prevent mass migration. For the last few decades, we have heard a lot about climate refugees, mostly as a result of forced displacements following extreme natural events or disasters caused by climate change. However, this person is probably the first legally recognised “pollution” refugee in the world.

This verdict also has special significance as it comes after a ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee a year ago stating that it would be unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis. The UN decision was largely a symbolic one as it did not have any legal binding on any country – which the French court’s ruling has on its national government. It has special significance due to the fact that the appeals court not only upheld the man’s plea based on the increased risks of premature death, it further observed that the drugs that the man was receiving in France were not available in Bangladesh.

There is no question about the lethal danger in the quality of air in Dhaka. According to the UN Environment Programme’s Breath-Life campaign, Dhaka’s air quality is 5.7 times over the safe level recommended by the World Health Organisation. It is well-known that many elderly people with breathing problems have, in recent years, been forced to leave Dhaka for other parts of the country in search of fresher air. But, shockingly, air quality in many other cities are even worse, as the BreathLife data shows – Khulna and Barishal both have over eight times the safe level. It puts the number of deaths annually in Bangladesh from air pollution at 166,598. And worryingly enough, the quality of air indoors is not less harmful than outdoor air quality.

The reasons behind air pollution are not unknown – it mostly comes from brick kilns, automobiles and industrial chimneys and dust generated from the construction work.

Environmentalists allege that the government’s response to combating air pollution is at best feeble. It is true that the government has taken action against polluting brick kilns. However, it has failed to take any meaningful steps to ensure setting up air treatment plants at large industrial units or to reduce emissions from traffic. Banning older polluting vehicles from plying the roads and restricting their import have been deferred repeatedly due to political pressure from groups with vested interest. The irony, however, is that while French automobiles are rarest of the rare on Dhaka’s streets, the largest beneficiaries of exporting the worst polluting vehicles, including diesel-run and used or refurbished ones, to Bangladesh are the countries in Asia, namely India, Japan and China.

A few years ago, there was quite a global stir when it emerged that some companies were selling fresh air in bags or cans. Soaring air pollution in world cities created demand for fresh air and some innovative entrepreneurs came up with a solution that was as unthinkable as it was expensive. And the obvious market was China, which at that time had the worst ranking of urban air pollution in the world. A BBC report then quoted the price of a bottle of fresh air at US$24 (RM97), which holds around 160 breaths – or about 12 taka (60 sen) for one breath. A Canadian company named Vitality used to collect air from the Canadian Rockies and compress it into containers. Later, they entered the Indian market too. I wonder whether it would shock anyone if we discover that those fresh air bottles have a market in Dhaka too.

In this context, the court victory by a Bangladeshi in France should be welcomed. There is more than one reason to see it as a positive development. It will certainly make government leaders in Western countries look at the issue of climate migration with urgency and assist developing and vulnerable nations with more resources to tackle pollution. Until they do, rights groups will be able to explore legal recourse to help emigrants with health conditions linked to pollution. Big corporations will also face closer scrutiny in relocating polluting industries to developing countries.

Besides, governments in the worst affected countries will face increased domestic pressure to act sooner and more decisively as pollution becomes an important factor in hurting the image of the country. However, there is nothing more effective than resistance from within. – The Daily Star/Asia News Network

Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist based in London.

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