COVID-19, Climate Change and the Pacific Migration Challenge

Henry Heritage | Pacific Fellow


Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 dominated the discussion at the 75th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations last month. Despite this, Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano reaffirmed the competing priorities of the Pacific by boldly naming climate change as the enduring largest threat for the region. In regards to security and sustainability, this is an accurate statement for the Pacific, which is critically and disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change both environmentally and economically.

Fortunately for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific, COVID-19 is a catastrophe that the region has largely avoided thus far. This is, of course, relating to the Pacific’s evasion of large-scale infections and fatalities. Economically, the pandemic has crippled the region’s critical tourism industry and halted the growth of emerging Pacific industries.

Although both separate subjects, the lingering threat of the pandemic overlaps with impending climate change pressures in the Pacific. This has severely impacted climate migration and the future of climate sustainability. In the Pacific, this issue does not refer to the current, but more so the imminent, potential of mass-scale populations forced to relocate due to environmental degradation.

The Threat

Climate migration in the Pacific does not exist in the same form as in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia - Pacific populations are not actively migrating to other states in large numbers. This is not to say that the threat is inferior, inversely, the threat of environmental migration in the Pacific, is intensified by the remote and dispersed geography of Pacific island states.

This is evidenced in the threat of territorial submersion - an extreme, yet realistic threat faced by Pacific SIDS such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. This threat realistically correlates with the degradation of livable, agricultural land due to extended cyclone seasons, increased soil salinity and erratic rainfall patterns - processes which will force Pacific populations to continue to relocate internally and migrate externally in the future.

COVID-19 intensifies the threat of environmentally forced migration trends by largely intersecting with natural Pacific adaptations to climate change. Strategic relocation in the Pacific will see populations continue to move away from the coast and move further inland, contributing to increased population consolidation.

The implications of this in a COVID-19 context raises some serious potential public health concerns. Higher condensed populations increase the threat, and the severity, of an outbreak. Particularly in a Pacific scenario, increasingly densely-populated areas would only further pressure the under-resourced healthcare systems and expose the limited response capacity of the Pacific, in the case of an outbreak.

Additionally, the delivery of COVID-19 support and humanitarian assistance to the Pacific is also impacted. Shifting migration trends and limited access to technology from Pacific populations complicates the government’s ability to monitor the population. Whether this is for contract tracing or aid delivery, restricted migration and travel data poses a barrier to government support. Quantifying and measuring environmental migration is already traditionally difficult to record. With COVID-19 impediments, the distribution and management of pandemic support and humanitarian aid is further complicated.

These domestic migration issues stand as pertinent threats that are intensified by COVID-19, and yet, they don’t even touch on the international barriers. From the logistical difficulty of international migration to the further marginalisation of climate migrants, COVID-19 intersects and exacerbates climate migration on both levels.

The Responses

Historically, international policy responses to climate migration and climate migrants in the Pacific have been limited in number and inadequate in scope. If COVID-19 has contributed anything constructive to this subject, it is that it has reemphasised the significance of migration policy, and brought the issue of climate migrants to the forefront of global discussion.

Through this, the pandemic has presented a valuable opportunity to reevaluate the legal status of climate migrants and address the shortcomings of global policy for environmental migration.

Notably, climate migrants are not recognised in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention (UNRC), and therefore not protected under the convention or formally identified in international law. Resultantly, other more widespread climate change matters have overshadowed any sort of policy discussion for climate migrants. Even then, the minimal pre-COVID attempts at addressing environmental migration in the Pacific have often been only preliminary in nature, or misdirected in aim.

A recent example of a failed policy is the “Humanitarian Visa” announced by the Ardern Government in New Zealand in 2017. The policy proposed that every year a set amount of special visas would be allocated to Pacific Islanders who are severely impacted by climate change, allowing them to live in New Zealand. The policy was widely celebrated as a progressive solution, yet it was rejected by Pacific island leaders and dropped only a year later.

The failure of this policy accurately encapsulates the issue with contemporary responses to pacific climate change. Immigration is not a preferred Pacific solution. There is an inherent connection to land, community and culture, which places immigration as a last resort for Pacific people.

A Pacific-centered solution is a preventative policy aimed to mitigate the imposing threat of climate change effects. Climate migration is an impending, but not an inevitable, catastrophe for Pacific SIDS and can be responded to by strategic emission reduction and industrial responsibility from Global North states. Meaningful climate policy, recognition of “climate refugees” in international law, and continued humanitarian assistance will best support Pacific states facing climate catastrophe and the COVID pandemic simultaneously.

Henry Heritage is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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