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Australia needs to do more to prepare for climate refugees

Grace Anderson

Australia is a land of drought and flooding rain, but the impact of climate change is going to impact more than just Australia’s weather patterns. Canberra’s current foreign policy framework is not prepared for inevitable mass-migration from South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands in the next 30 years. The issue of so-called “climate migrants” and the impact they will have on Australian borders is rarely discussed in Australian politics.

The concept has been branded a “security issue” by the Australian Government but despite the classification, Australia has not equipped itself with a foreign policy to address it the inevitable mass-migration.

“Environmental migrants” or “climate refugees” have been defined as being people forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment; changes which compromise their wellbeing or secured livelihood. The idea of environmental displacement is not new. Many have become internally displaced due to natural disasters; the Black Saturday Fires in Victoria in 2009, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 have all caused the mass loss of shelter and prompted internal displacement.

However, the impact of Climate Change (including desertification, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, air pollution, rain pattern shifting and loss of biodiversity) is causing long-term changes to inhabited lands, leaving them unable to sustain a human population. In this case, the inhabitants of the land are forced to flee or risk death.

Regardless of the strict policies Australian politicians put in place to stop refugees, Australia will be heavily impacted by the emergence of climate migrants. The World Bank estimates that three regions will generate more than 143 million environmental refugees by 2050; Latin America, South East Asia and Sub- Saharan Africa.

The New York Times estimates that in South East Asia the impact of changing temperatures and rising sea levels alone will impact the living conditions of 800 million people to diminish significantly by 2050 causing mass-migration. Australia is the natural first choice for South-East Asia’s climate migrants.

The impact of rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands has already caused eight islands to be entirely submerged with another two on the brink. Currently, the sea level is rising by 12 millimetres per-year on the Western side of the Pacific. At this rate, it is estimated that 48 islands will be submerged by 2100. The geographic proximity of the Pacific Islands to Australia creates an ideal path for the 2.3 million inhabitants to seek refuge.

This was already the case in 2015 when the Teitota family that has lost their land and the majority of their home island of Kiribati to rising sea levels. The family applied for refugee status on the basis of environment displacement, only to be rejected by both Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands and South-East Asia are going to be significantly affected by climate change. Australia needs to prepare for the influx of displaced persons that will surely follow.

The current policy approach which is centred on denial, detention and “stopping the boats” will not be sufficient. These will not be people being “smuggled in” they will not be “queue jumpers”- they will be families who have lost their homes and had no other choice than to seek the kindness of the international community. Australia cannot “turn them around” to a submerged island. They will not have the means to approach the “official channels”, Australia is their only option.

The chance of any meaningful policy being enacted in Australia regarding climate migrants seems distant at this stage. There are no current protections for environmental or climate affected refugees and migrants under international law.

Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, Australia refuses to adhere even to the 1950s definition of an “asylum seeker”.

The reality is that Australia’s borders will be flooded with those with nowhere else to go. Those whose lands have been lost and whose families risk starvation. This is not a security issue; it is a humanitarian one. If Australia refuses to set emissions targets and take meaningful action on climate change, it should at least prepare for the incoming masses of those who will suffer the most from its inaction.

Grace Anderson was the July-December Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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