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Climate-induced Migration: How Australia Can Respond to Another Global Crisis

Genevieve Donnellon-May | Climate Fellow

Image credit: Julien Harneis via Wikimedia Commons

At the recent twenty-seventh Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), little attention was paid to climate change-induced migration – one of its most devastating impacts.

While people have moved in response to environmental dangers for thousands of years, researchers expect that more people will be forced to migrate due to the increased frequency and intensity of climate change-induced disasters. By 2050, the World Bank projects that more than 200 million people will migrate domestically (internally) worldwide. In particular, the Indo-Pacific will be disproportionately affected. By 2025, 35% of Kiribati’s population and 100% of Tuvalu’s residents will be forced to migrate overseas.

Aside from reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and supporting efforts to reduce the risk of disasters through international frameworks and foreign aid, Australia and other donor countries must play a greater role by using adaptation funding to establish climate mobility plans. Climate mobility plans are created by governments to prepare for the relocation needs of communities affected by climate change and related disasters, and to meet the requirements of international and regional frameworks on human mobility in the context of climate change. Despite the enormous consequences of climate migration, only two countries–Fiji and Vanuatu–have an adequate level climate mobility.

This is an area where Australia can act as a global citizen and regional partner by supporting efforts to draw up climate mobility plans, especially in the Pacific Islands. As the Climate Council of Australia notes, the region is one of the world’s most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change impacts like rising sea-levels.

In response to concerns, the Australian government could work with the Islands through peer-to-peer engagement as part of greater climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. One way is to establish multi-sectoral government departments in both Australia and in each of the governments of the Pacific Islands for effective coordination and decision-making.

Under this arrangement, the government departments could work alongside stakeholders, including local communities, and international and civil society groups, when drawing up climate mobility plans. For instance, this could include acknowledging areas where people are at risk of rising sea levels and supporting local governments that expect to see a decrease or increase in population.

To achieve this, the support and input of these stakeholders is essential. It ensures that the risks associated with climate mobility and related climate change disasters are adequately addressed on varying scales (regional, national, provincial, and local) and support all residents.

These actions could be complemented by greater emphasis on climate mobility in existing regional climate adaptation and mitigation frameworks, such as the 2017-2030 Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP). Currently, the FRDP lists climate-related migration as a priority for national and sub-national governments under Goal 1. This suggests that international organisations and Pacific governments are aware of the challenges that they will face in the coming years and that they acknowledge climate migration will be one of these threats. Following the FRDP’s suggestion of regional labour migration schemes, Australia could also establish innovative regional climate migration visa programmes. Humanitarian visa programmes have been implemented in Argentina and are being considered elsewhere.

While Australia does have other initiatives in place, the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme’s newly established Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV) could be used to support climate migration, given that it establishes a path to permanent residency for 3,000 Pacific workers annually. As Professor Michael Kubani and Akka Rimon point out, this would be “a lifeline” for countries that offer limited opportunities for internal resettlement and high vulnerability for climate change.

An array of intersecting political, legal, and financial issues remain challenges to addressing climate migration. Global frameworks for climate-induced migration are nearly non-existent and do not consider those displaced by climate change and disasters as "refugees" under international law. This is despite the UN General Assembly 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, which acknowledged that climate change-associated events combine with other drivers of displacement. Furthermore, in January 2020 the UN Human Rights Commission officially recognised that governments cannot return a person to their home country if their life would be threatened by climate change impacts. This means that Australia will need to provide complementary humanitarian status for migrants who cannot return to their homes and livelihoods due to the devastation of climate change.

Additionally, climate change, refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration are often controversial topics in Australia, partly due to fears in the Australian psyche of uncontrolled migration and invasion. Although the UN has repeatedly informed Australia that its boat arrivals policies violate international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, these issues continue to be used by political parties to score points with voters. Considering the degree of scepticism toward climate change in Australia, how does this affect public opinion of climate change and climate change-induced migration? How may it influence and embolden those calling for stricter migration policies?

While Australia ponders climate migration and considers how to reduce carbon emissions, it is a different story for its Pacific neighbours for whom, in many cases, it is already too late. Australian politicians should put aside differences by making climate-induced migration a bipartisanship issue. By working together on climate mobility with partners in the Pacific, Australia can become a regional and global leader in tackling this issue. After all, one day we might find ourselves in hot water and need assistance from our neighbours too.

Genevieve Donnellon-May is the Climate Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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