The Uncertain Future of ‘Climate Refugees’ in the Pacific

Photo: UN ISDR

In September 2012 a 36 year old man from the nation of Kiribati applied for refugee status with the government of New Zealand to avoid being deported after his visa expired. He claimed that he feared for his children’s futures in Kiribati, which is slowly being engulfed by rising sea levels and could be completely uninhabitable in 20 years. The man’s request was denied.

This man’s struggle is just one example of the plight of hundreds of thousands of people from around the Pacific whose islands are deteriorating due to rising sea-levels. While the deterioration is gradual, many island nations like Kiribati are already suffering from overcrowding, food and water shortage. The islanders face threats on multiple fronts as coastal erosion, saltwater inundation, and increasingly powerful high tides threaten island infrastructure and local livelihoods.

This month, the Refugee Council of Australia implored the Australian government to become the first nation in the world to recognize populations displaced due to changes in climate as “climate refugees.” But Australia’s government remains reluctant, part of a global trend from developed nations who have been asked to help face this problem.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there will be some 250 million climate-induced displaced peoples globally by 2050. Such displaced populations will exist in most every country, as sea-level rise and extreme weather will create conditions detrimental to coastal urban infrastructure and the livelihoods of many. While some developed countries have provided aid and material support to developing nations and islands like Kiribati for adaptation and prevention, none have taken concrete steps to prepare for an influx of refugees. Many think that “climate refugees,” a term referring both to populations displaced within their countries and those who have to emigrate abroad, are inevitable, as coastlines continue to erode and island nations feel the adverse effects of severe weather. If Australia won’t be the first to recognize such refugees, who will?


“Climate refugees”

The Global Governance Project defines climate refugees as “people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.”

Many islands in the Pacific are low-lying atolls, or coral reef islands, which can be as low as 1-5 meters above sea-level. At such low elevations, limited resources are considerably more strained by environmental changes. In Kiribati, a population exceeding 100,000 is facing environmental threats which are slowly forcing people to resettle to the few habitable islands that are left. This overcrowding has left Kiribati with one of the highest population densities in the world at roughly 15,000 people per square kilometer. Freshwater supplies are limited, and what few water supplies remain are often contaminated by waste unable to be removed from the islands, including sewage. As sea-levels rise and tidal changes increase in frequency and intensity, arable land becomes inundated with salt water, killing native plants and making the cultivation of what few crops are able to survive on the island impossible. Kiribati has been forced to import large quantities of food from neighbors, like the Marshall Islands, and have recently discussed purchasing 3,000 hectares of land in Fiji for food production for the island. Such environmental conditions leave Kiribati with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

Kiribati is not alone in facing such problems. Numerous Pacific islands including Tuvalu, the Carteret Islands, the Maldives, the Cook Islands, and more are all facing similar conditions with limited prospects for long-term survival. While Kiribati receives most of its income from fishing licenses sold to other countries like Japan, most islands in the region have very little exportable income and rely heavily on foreign aid. Being dependent on aid makes taking adaptive and preventative measures difficult, as building infrastructure is costly.


President Anote Tong of Kiribati has stated that despite efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, he is now preparing his people to “migrate with dignity.” “For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate,” Tong told the UK’s Daily Mail. “Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse, or we can prepare them – beginning from now.” Tong is seeking to expand training and education so that young i-Kiribati (the term for natives of Kiribati) will have the skill set to meet the rigid immigration requirements of Australia and New Zealand.

The biggest hurdle to populations like that of Kiribati is that their plight has yet to be labelled: Cross-border displacement due to climate change has no recognized international standing. By definition, the term “refugee” applies only to those who fear persecution by their government for being a member of a certain political, religious or ethnic affiliation. Those on Kiribati do not fit into this category. “These are people who are not suffering from persecution because of their beliefs, race or because they belong to a particular group. So they don’t meet the Refugee Convention criteria,” said Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, “but, nevertheless, there will be a need for people to be resettled because they have been displaced by climate change. This is a new cohort of people who are emerging, the rest of the world needs to pay attention.”

But many don’t want to see the term “refugee” expanded to include populations displaced by climate change, fearing the risk of lessening the severity and urgency associated with the word. I-Kiribati and other populations don’t like the term “refugee” either. “[P]eople in affected Pacific nations do not consider themselves as future refugees and their leaders desire better answers to their concerns than traditional refugee solutions,” says Glendenning. “The people of Kiribati reject the idea of becoming ‘climate change refugees’ because they believe that, with the right forms of international support, they have time to find better answers.” However, strict immigration policies in both New Zealand and Australia are a major obstacle for the i-Kiribati and others with uncertain futures.

Seeking migration with dignity

Currently, through the Pacific Access Category, New Zealand grants residency to 75 individuals and their families from Kiribati and Tuvalu and 250 from Tonga each year. In order to qualify, the principle applicant must be between 18 and 45 years old with an offer and proof of employment, in good health (so applicants and their families won’t “impose excessive costs and demands” on government services), and be proficient in English.

Australia grants residency and visas to roughly 190,000 immigrants each year. The positions are offered to “highly skilled” workers according to changing guidelines surrounding what fields need workers presently, business people, and those with family ties to Australia. Australia has a strong refugee assistance program and is currently helping refugees from Syria resettle, but for those that do not fall within the “refugee” category, immigration remains difficult.

Individuals seeking asylum often arrive without visas by boat and are controversially held in detention. “Immigration detention in Australia is indefinite – there is no limit in law or policy to the length of time for which a person may be detained,” writes the Australian Human Rights Commission. “Some asylum seekers and refugees spend long periods of time in immigration detention waiting for their refugee claim to be assessed; waiting for the completion of health, identity and security checks; or awaiting removal from Australia if they have been found not to be a refugee nor to otherwise be owed protection.”

Asylum seekers are not refugees by definition, but are migrants that need to prove their status as refugees. Not all asylum seekers are refugees, but all refugees are originally asylum seekers. This is the same plight of the man who was rejected refugee status in New Zealand based on his fear for his children’s safety should they return to Kiribati. The requirements and stipulations in both countries allow for some i-Kiribati and other islanders to become citizens, but in reality most don’t qualify due to lack of funding for schools, poor health conditions, and lack of jobs on the islands. This has led to President Tong of Kiribati to implement his “migration with dignity” strategy which hopes to focus on training and educating young i-Kiribati to ensure their future elsewhere. But it leaves little hope for the unskilled, unhealthy and struggling people on islands around the Pacific.

An uncertain future

While no developed country has yet taken the first steps towards recognizing and offering asylum to individuals or populations displaced by climate change, many (including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) offer millions of dollars in humanitarian aid each year, and some hope that with discussion and policy changes, this international aid could allow them to prevent an eventual migration. “[O]verwhelmingly, the i-Kiribati people want to remain where they are and are exploring options for gaining international assistance to protect islands from inundation, maintain access to clean water and find security and, where necessary, relocate within their national borders,” said Glendenning.

Despite his doubts and uncertainty, President Tong is desperately seeking solutions. “This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” Tong said. Tong’s conviction that international powers must accept “climate refugees” and prepare for their arrival is matched by agencies around the world; but with only gradual forward motion on the issue and no preparation from developed nations, climate refugees may be at other countries’ doorsteps sooner than imagined, and to their detriment.

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