In 2017, New Zealand announced a new humanitarian visa for those displaced by climate change in the Pacific. Then in 2018, it changed tack, abandoning the visa and instead following the priorities of Pacific island peoples, Nina Hall writes.
In October 2017, the New Zealand Climate Minister, James Shaw, announced a world first: a humanitarian visa for 100 people from the Pacific affected by climate change. The ‘pilot’ visa would enable Pacific islanders who face rising sea levels, salt-water intrusion, and other adverse effects of climate change, to move to New Zealand.
Shaw, also the co-leader of the Green Party, made this announcement in the run-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Bonn to send a clear message to the world: New Zealand will be a leader in tackling the climate crisis and helping those in its region worst affected by climate change.
Since then, media and politicians across the world have taken note of this pioneering policy. It was a breakthrough as no other government has pledged so concretely to assist those displaced directly by climate change.
Moreover, there are no provisions within the 1951 Refugee Convention for those who are forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, even if the disasters were caused by anthropogenic climate change. This is because the Convention was written in the early days of the Cold War, to assist those fleeing persecution in Europe.
However, fewer commentators took notice when the New Zealand Government announced it would not go ahead with this humanitarian visa.
In August 2018, the Minister for Immigration, Ian Lees-Galloway, announced that the government had no current plans for implementing the experimental visa, but that it would consider its approach to the impacts of climate change in the Pacific in future conversations around immigration policies.
The Green Party immigration spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman explained that a humanitarian visa was not likely to work in the Pacific context. Pacific islanders have regularly expressed their desire for self-determination and a collective solution rather than an individualised visa approach.
In short, the New Zealand government changed its approach to align with Pacific island countries’ desires instead of an outsider perception of what would suit them best.
So, what are the Pacific islands’ priorities?
Firstly, Pacific island countries want to see a drastic cut in greenhouse gas emissions. They have long urged the international community to limit global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
It was thanks to their advocacy, working with other developing small island states, that the Paris Agreement even set an aspirational goal of 1.5 degree – although states are officially aiming for 2 degrees Celsius.
More recently, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to shift Australia away from fossil fuels. Bainimarama noted that no industry should take priority over the welfare of Pacific peoples and others affected by climate change. The livelihoods of Fijian farmers, he explained, are already being threatened due to the effects of rising sea levels.
Secondly, many Pacific islanders want to stay in their homes. In 2008, Pacific island leaders came together to sign the Niue Declaration on climate change. The declaration recognises the importance of preserving Pacific society and culture, as well as peoples’ wish to live in their home countries.
The declaration also encourages signatory nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Pacific leaders have regularly called on their development partners and regional agencies to channel aid to adaptation efforts in the Pacific, and have also pushed for greater funding internationally.
Thirdly, even in the worst-case scenario, Pacific islanders are likely to want ‘migration with dignity’ and not be forced to flee as refugees. Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has regularly called for countries to open up pathways for migration so that people can choose when they move instead of being treated as refugees.
So, what should other countries do to support Pacific island countries? Governments and individuals must drastically cut their own carbon emissions.
Governments should also offer adaptation assistance to nations vulnerable to climate change and open up legal pathways for Pacific islanders to migrate.
New Zealand is taking a step in the right direction with its Zero Carbon Bill and an increase in adaptation assistance for the Pacific, but there’s much more to do both there and abroad. We can start by carefully listening to and collaborating with those who are most immediately affected by climate change.