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The forced migration of Pacific Islanders

Image credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Environmental disasters causing the forced movement of people is not a new phenomenon, but climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity with which it occurs. Rising sea levels will have enormous detrimental effects on countries with low lying coastal areas, such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. But it is the citizens of low lying island states, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, who will be forced to completely abandon their homelands. Located in the South Pacific, the small independent island states of Kiribati and Tuvalu have somewhat become a ‘poster-image’ for climate change, featuring in documentaries and literature as the ‘sinking states’. The average height of these islands is less than two meters above sea level and, under most predictions, will be uninhabitable by the middle of this century.

This raises the question of how the international community should respond to assist the movement of these affected populations. Under current international law, there is no precedent for those forced to move due to climate change to be afforded refugee status. The very narrow definition of ‘refugee’ currently only applies to those fearing persecution for very specific reasons. It is therefore incorrect to refer to those forced to move because of climate change as ‘climate-change refugees’.

There have, however, been numerous calls to grant such displaced persons refugee status, including a recent New Zealand court case that made global headlines. This was the case of Ioane Teitiota, a farmer from Kiribati, who attempted to claim refugee status in New Zealand after migrating and building a life there in 2007. A lawyer picked up Teitiota’s case and appealed to the New Zealand government to grant him refugee status under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees ‘on the basis of changes to his environment in Kiribati caused by sea-level-rise associated with climate change’. Teitiota was ultimately denied refugee status under the pretext that there had been no action or lack thereof by the Kiribati government to threaten Teitiota or his family’s life.

Aside from this case, it remains that most citizens of Kiribati and Tuvalu reject the idea of refugee status. They maintain that they do not want to be viewed as helpless victims who are reliant on aid. Instead, they wish to move to countries such as Australia and New Zealand and be accepted as respectable members of those communities. When migration is presented as the easy solution to this form of displacement, however, the threat of climate change is downplayed, which reduces options for burden-sharing mechanisms. Migration pathways also offer little to no financial or psychological support for those forced to move due to climate change.

Kiribati and Tuvalu citizens are witnessing the destruction of their homeland, being forced to give up their way of life, move away from loved ones, and risk losing their culture and heritage. The detrimental effect that this is having on the wellbeing of these populations has not yet been well documented, and the services required to assist them are not being delivered through migratory pathways.

These issues aside, the migratory pathways in the current sovereign-focused international community are increasingly difficult to use. Developed and prosperous countries, such as Australia, are increasingly closing themselves off to the outside world. It is important to note, however, that Australia currently receives much higher numbers of skilled migrants than those seeking asylum. The I-Kiribati motivation to move as regular migrants rather than as refugees is thus a well founded one.

It remains that the populations of Kiribati and Tuvalu are being forced to move. Through no fault of their own, the land they have inhabited for generations is literally disappearing beneath their feet. Whilst this movement is forced, there are no legitimate avenues under existing international refugee laws to recognise and resettle those forced to move by climate change. This problem prevails because the movement of such populations will most likely not be the result of a sudden disastrous event to which the international community must respond. Instead, it will occur as a gradual, pre-emptive movement of an entire population over many years. Ultimately, coordinated responses are needed for those who are forced to migrate, as well as for the countries to which they wish to migrate. (See Australia national policy framework on environmental migration). This will remain a critical issue facing the international community for decades to come, but there appears to be no solution in sight.

Jess Yorke is undertaking a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. She holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Indonesian and volunteers for the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria and RSPCA Victoria.

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