Are there climate change refugees in the Pacific?

Some may stay and others may leave in face of increased risks

Ian Fry

Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, Law, National security, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific, The World

24 June 2019

Unrecognised by the global community as ‘refugees’, those who are displaced by climate change-related events are unlikely to receive adequate legal protection, Ian Fry writes.

In 2013, Mr Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati asked the New Zealand High Court to allow his appeal against a decision made by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. He had been refused asylum as a climate change refugee.

The Tribunal found that Mr Teitiota had undertaken what may be termed a ‘voluntary adaptive migration’, and that his decision to migrate to New Zealand could not be seen as ‘forced’.

Mr Teitiota appealed this decision and the appeal process ended up in the Supreme Court. The High Court found that, in relation to the Refugee Convention, Mr Teitiota did not face ‘serious harm’, and further, that there was no proof that the Kiribati government was failing to provide its citizens with the help it could give against the effects of environmental degradation.

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This was not the first case where someone had claimed that they were a climate change refugee, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Not long after Jacinda Ardern was elected as Prime Minister of New Zealand in 2017, Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced that the government was considering creating a visa category to help relocate Pacific peoples displaced by climate change.

In February this year, however, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters claimed it was premature to extend New Zealand citizenship to environmental refugees fleeing the effects of climate change.

A number of observations can be made from the New Zealand ‘climate change refugee’ saga. While there is limited scientific data to suggest that sea level rise is currently creating a cause for displacement, recent cyclones in the region – a consequence of warming temperatures – are a different matter.

Large storm surges from Cyclone Pam and Cyclone Winston – to name just two – have led to the internal displacement of villagers in a number of countries. In Tuvalu, for instance, the over-washing of three islands by the storm surge created by Pam forced some to move to Funafuti.

Admittedly, there appears to be little information to determine whether these cyclones led to international migration in the Pacific. Nevertheless, the threat is very real and growing due to a number of climate change induced dangers.

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While people are displaced across national borders as a consequence of climate events, it seems evident that they cannot be defined as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

According to the definition of ‘refugee’, these people are excluded because they have not suffered some form of persecution. Consequently, these climate change-displaced people tend to fall through legal protections established by the Refugee Convention.

As a result of this lack of legal protection, Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga announced at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit that Tuvalu would be tabling a United Nations General Assembly resolution to commence work on developing a legal regime to give protection to people displaced by climate change. This draft resolution is currently being circulated for consideration at this year’s General Assembly.

In making this announcement, Sopoaga clearly stated that this resolution was in response to a global problem, and that this was not a signal that Tuvaluans were wanting to move to another country. Tuvaluans want to stay in Tuvalu.

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The notion of climate change migration as an adaptation strategy rather than a forced need was promoted by the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, when he referred to the concept of ‘migration with dignity’.

The former president saw migration as an adaptation strategy and wanted to make sure that anyone from Kiribati wanting to migrate should be able to do so without becoming second-class citizens in another country. As part of this policy, the Tong Government purchased 5500 acres of land in Fiji.

Anote Tong’s view is not shared by the current President Taneti Mamau, who prefers his ‘stay and fight’ policy – in line with views shared by Sopoaga. Despite this, Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced at a climate change meeting in 2017, that he would allow the populations of Kiribati and Tuvalu to settle in his country.

Some Pacific islanders are likely to perceive climate change as a threat to their livelihood and may choose to migrate, but it is also evitable that others will be internationally displaced by climate change.

Though they may not be defined as climate change refugees, they must still be given appropriate rights in their country of resettlement and the opportunity to return to their homeland if circumstances change. What the world needs from here onwards, therefore, is are stronger legal and policy frameworks to support them.

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