Leaders from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) around the world gathered in the Maldives in November 2007, and issued the Malé Declaration on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change. Calling for urgent action by developed nations, they ‘committed to an inclusive process that puts people, their prosperity, homes, survival and rights at the centre of the climate change debate’. As Australian politicians debate the technicalities of the CPRS Emissions Trading Scheme and how much compensation to provide the coal industry, it’s important we come back to this human dimension.
Over the past year, I’ve been visiting communities in the Pacific islands, to ask people about their concerns on climate change and to find out what they’re doing to respond to the adverse effects of global warming. From renewable energy initiatives and community-based vulnerability training to advocacy at international meetings, islanders are actively engaged in responding to the climate emergency. But the enormity of the environmental impacts already locked into the ecosystem means that some people are debating whether they’ll need to leave their homelands.
You can’t help but focus on the human impacts when visiting low-lying islands in the Pacific. The potential hazards are obvious on atolls like South Tarawa in Kiribati, a narrow strip of land 40 kilometres long but only 50–100 metres wide.With land areas just metres above sea-level, there is no retreat to higher ground from the ravages of storm surges and more intense cyclones. Facing salt water inundation of agricultural land and fresh water supplies, these threats to coastal villages tend to concentrate the mind about the powers of the elements. For low-lying atoll nations in Polynesia and Micronesia, the potential failure of the Copenhagen negotiations and delays in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will lead to forced displacement. However, the current intergovernmental Pacific Islands Framework for Action on Climate Change (PIFACC), developed by the Forum member countries, makes no mention of displacement or migration.
In spite of this, some Pacific island governments like Kiribati, Tokelau and Niue are openly discussing issues of relocation and resettlement due to climate change. In July 2007, a joint statement from Pacific environment ministers to the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting (FEMM) noted: ‘The potential for some Pacific islands to become uninhabitable due to climate change is a very real one. Consequently some in our region have raised the issue of their citizens becoming environment refugees … Potential evacuation of island populations raises grave concerns over sovereign rights as well as the unthinkable possibility of entire cultures being damaged or obliterated’.
In August 2009, the outgoing chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Premier of Niue Toke Talagi, says it may be time for the regional organisation to formally consider the issue of resettlement of people affected by climate change. Speaking at the official opening of the 2009 Forum leaders meeting in Cairns, Talagi stated, ‘While all of us are affected,the situation for small island states is quite worrisome. For them, choices such as resettlement must be considered seriously and I wonder whether the Forum is ready to commence formal discussion on the matter’. Across the Pacific, there are a number of examples where people from low lying islands are considering relocation after being affected by extreme weather events, tectonic land shifts or climactic change that damages food security and water supply.
The case of the Carteret Islands in Bougainville is well known, where Ursula Rakova and the local NGO Tulele Peisa are assisting families to resettle on church-donated land on the main island of Buka. There are similar problems looming in other outlying atoll communities, such as the Duke of York atolls (a number of small low-lying islands in St.George’s Channel near Rabaul in Papua New Guinea) or the Mortlock Islands in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia. In the Solomon Islands, tectonic plate movement and sea-level rise may lead to the displacement of people in outlying atolls like Ongtong Java (Lord Howe) or artificial islands like Walande in Malaita Province.
But what will resettlement involve? To hear about the experience of people who’ve already been forced from their homes, I visited the islands of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, which were hit by a tsunami in April 2007. More than two years after the tsunami, many people on the main island of Gizo are reluctant to return coastal villages, and are still living in improvised housing up in the hills and mountain ridges. At Titiana, one of the coastal villages on Gizo that bore the brunt of the tsunami, you can see the damage to community infrastructure. Villager Orau Mote shows us where the school, church and pastor’s house were swept away—all that remains is a pile of concrete and steel rods. Children in Titiana have been using large tents as their school rooms, provided by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education. Titiana’s United Church pastor Motu Tarakabu told me that many residents are still traumatised by the disaster. ‘Only about 20 per cent of residents have come back to the village after the destruction of the tsunami. Many others have decided to stay away and remain up in the hills—they have fear in their heart. People are still strong that they won’t come back to the village.’
Driving up the mountain ridges, you meet people from the coast who are refusing to resettle in their former homes and are building new houses to replace the tents and tarpaulins supplied after the disaster. Some villagers are rebuilding on land provided by clan relatives, but many are squatting on government land alongside roads and logging tracks. Orau Mote explains that a number of people of Micronesian heritage were relocated from the Gilbert Islands to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate during the era of British colonial rule. For these migrant communities, displaced again by the tsunami, there are new problems—people of Melanesian heritage often have clan and community links that can assist with resettlement. For non-Indigenous communities, even those who have lived in the Solomon Islands for decades, it is harder to find access to land and resources.
The villagers have sought support from Oxfam and the Solomon Islands Red Cross for provision of water tanks, corrugated iron for water catchment and housing, and other support services. But conditions remain difficult for the displaced communities, in spite of their resilience. Sale Sam, who lives in Tiroduke camp up on the ridges above Gizo town, said, ‘Until Oxfam provided water tanks, we had to cart water for miles. The hill tops are very exposed—the wind blows from all directions, unlike the village which was sheltered’. Children from lower grades are attending classes up in the hills, but for senior grades the children need to trek down to the coastal villages each day, travelling kilometres to school. On the coast, women used to go out on the reef at low tide to collect crabs, shellfish and other seafood—an important source of protein to add to food grown in village gardens. But now it’s harder to easily access this vital food supply. ‘Our diet is changing now that we live on the higher ground’, said one camp resident. ‘The men still go down to the coast to go fishing, but we don’t go out so much on the reef.’
Although in his sixties, Sale Sam still works to support his daughter Jocelyn, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility as they make a new home. For me, the resilience of this young woman, living in a wheel chair on a mountainside in the Solomon Islands, symbolises the larger challenge—what will displacement mean for the many thousands of people who face relocation in coming decades because of climate change?
Refugee or migrant?
In recent years, there is a growing academic literature on climate change, forced migration and conflict, but a mixed response to the concept of ‘climate refugees.’ The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) argues that the term ‘environmental refugee’ is not appropriate, as the definition of refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention and international humanitarian law has particular limits, covering people who are seeking protection because of a well-founded belief of persecution related to their religion, ethnicity, political beliefs etc. Signatories to the 1951 Convention have specific legal responsibilities to people who reach their territory and claim asylum and protection, and refugee advocates are reluctant to see these state obligations watered down.
As noted in an October 2008 UNHCR briefing paper Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: UNHCR has serious reservations with respect to the terminology and notion of ‘environmental refugees’ or ‘climate refugees’. These terms have no basis in international refugee law. Furthermore, the majority of those who are commonly described as environmental refugees have not crossed an international border. Use of the terminology could potentially undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees and create confusion regarding the link between climate change, environmental degradation and migration.
Part of the problem is that key UN agencies responsible for displaced people have no formal mandate to address the climate issue. UNHCR does not cover people who are displaced internally or seek refuge overseas because of environmental causes. However, because of its practical experience in dealing with large scale forced movement of people, UNHCR staff and resources have increasingly been allocated to support operations in the aftermath of major natural disasters (such as the 2004 Asian tsunami, 2005 South Asian earthquake, 2006 floods in Somalia and 2008 floods in Burma, amongst others).
UNHCR is worried that its existing responsibility for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people will be overwhelmed by the tens of millions of people potentially displaced by climate change. However the numbers of people who meet the definition of ‘environmental refugee’ are also contested. Studies have cited global figures ranging from 200 million (researcher Norman Myers) to over 1 billion potential refugees (a 2007 Christian Aid report). But migration specialists have questioned these numbers, arguing that people affected by environmental impacts will not necessarily cross international borders to seek refuge.
An important 2008 study on forced migration and climate change from the Norwegian Refugee Council, Future floods of refugees, raises crucial qualifications on the term refugees: There seems to be some fear in the developed countries that they, if not flooded literally, will most certainly be flooded by ‘climate refugees’. From a forced migration perspective, the term is flawed for several reasons. The term ‘climate refugees’ implies a mono-causality that one rarely finds in human reality. No one factor, event or process, inevitably results in forced migration or conflict. It is very likely that climate change impacts will contribute to an increase in forced migration. Because one cannot completely isolate climate change as a cause however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stipulate any numbers. Importantly, the impacts depend not only on natural exposure, but also on the vulnerability and resilience of the areas and people, including capacities to adapt. At best, we have ‘guesstimates’ about the possible form and scope of forced migration related to climate change.
Agency and choice
When they look at international rather than domestic impacts, climate advocacy groups in Australia and New Zealand have highlighted the issue of ‘Pacific climate refugees’ in their campaigning. Many have argued that Australia and New Zealand, as the largest members of the Pacific Islands Forum, have particular responsibilities to their island neighbours. But do people debating the issue ever ask those most affected what they really want? It may seem trite to see people in developing countries as actors rather than victims in this global emergency, yet much of the climate literature presents the Pacific’s only contribution to the climate debate as a loud ‘glug, glug, glug’ as the islands sink beneath the waves.
The issue of displacement raises a number of practical, emotional and political responses. In interviews with people around the Pacific, different opinions came from the elderly compared to younger people who have more flexible skills for migration. As one old man in the Solomon Islands told me, ‘They talk about us moving. But we are tied to this land. Will we take our cemeteries with us? For we are nothing without our land and our ancestors’. Community activist Annie Homasi from Tuvalu says the slow pace of action by large industrialised countries has the potential to cause uncertainty and even division in the local community, for people who are fearful they may have to relocate from their homes.
‘There’s quite a debate at home, maybe even a division, between the older generation and the young people. Because they go overseas for school, the young ones say, “Yeah, we have to move”. But the older ones say, “This is me, my identity and my heritage—I don’t want to go”.’
There are also complex cultural responses in the Pacific, with many religious people stating that God will not forsake them. Some old people deny any long term threat from floods and rain, citing Biblical injunctions like God’s promise to Noah after the Flood: ‘neither will I ever again smite everything living as I have done’ (Genesis 8:21).
Most Pacific governments are still reluctant to focus resources on displacement issues, because they feel this will acknowledge defeat and undermine negotiating positions at the international level, as they press for stronger targets in the Copenhagen negotiations.
Government leaders from Kiribati and Tuvalu continue to stress that increased mitigation efforts by industrialised nations should be the focus of activity. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2008, Tuvalu Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia stated: We strongly believe that it is the political and moral responsibility of the world, particularly those who caused the problem, to save small islands and countries like Tuvalu from climate change, and ensure that we continue to live in our home islands with long-term security, cultural identity and fundamental human dignity. Forcing us to leave our islands due to the inaction of those responsible is immoral, and cannot be used as quick fix solutions to the problem.
Most of the discussion of climate displacement in Australia focuses on the need for Pacific Rim countries to change their migration policies. But the language of the debate revives past fears about being ‘swamped’ by immigrants or asylum seekers. Concerned activist groups stress Australia’s moral obligations to open its doors while conservatives respond with refrains that echo John Howard’s infamous dog whistle, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’.
Environmental groups have argued that Australia’s existing humanitarian immigration quotas should not be allocated to climate- related refugees and that an additional category is required. The Migration (Climate Refugees) Amendment Bill 2007 advanced by the Australian Greens proposed the creation of a new visa class to formally recognise climate refugees, but lapsed without support from the major parties. Other options could involve an expanded system of free migration as already exists between Australia and New Zealand, which enjoy shared migration rights of free access and permanent residence. New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category, which provides migration quotas for citizens from Tuvalu, Kiribati, Fiji and Tonga, provides a de facto window for migration from climate affected countries, even though the New Zealand government has not explicitly recognised this as an option dedicated to people affected by environmental impacts.
In contrast, some Pacific leaders have suggested that it may be more appropriate to call for Australian and New Zealand financial support for the resettlement of people to other Pacific islands, to provide agricultural land and a suitable cultural context for displaced rural communities. A key feature of environmental displacement in the Pacific is that much of the movement is internal, rather than across international boundaries, which places extra burdens on national government budgets as well as host communities who accept people from other areas.
But money is not enough. A worrying feature of the debate about ‘climate refugees’ is that the bald predictions of forced relocation give little agency or choice to the affected communities. Compared to a rapid natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami, the ravages of climate change will mount over time, so people can be engaged in discussing the options. We must learn from the failure of past resettlement projects in developing countries, which comes not just from inadequate inputs of resources but from the inherent complexity of this as a social process involving human beings with hopes, dreams, aspirations and especially memories. Relocation and resettlement is not simply a material infrastructure process—it is also a social process and there are a number of issues of co-operation, voice and justice that need to be addressed. How do you promote resettlement with respect for equality and equity?
Moving to a new location within a country or across international borders is just the first step, and there are a host of political as well as technical dilemmas for communities on the move:
• Do displaced people have a say in the design and construction of new communities (for example, site selection that can provide water, arable land and other resources; culturally appropriate housing in terms of size, design, spacing and materials; settlement design to allow social and cultural interaction)?
• Are people being compensated for need or loss (that is what they need for survival or for what they feel they’ve lost)?
• Can you be compensated for intangibles, such as the grief of losing a home, or loss of political and cultural identity?
• Will the wealthy leave early, and leavebehind those with fewer resources?
• Will displaced people be better serviced by donors than existing members of the new host community, causing inter-communal tensions?
• Should old power relations and systems of chiefly rule be recreated, or are they tied to past relationships with the lost land?
This raises the core question of whether funding for adaptation and relocation will be allocated without the engagement and consent of affected communities. Is planning for relocation being done with people or for people? The potential for displacement because of climate change needs extensive community participation and debate, as noted by Betarim Rimon of the Kiribati Ministry of Environment: ‘In Kiribati, we are talking about relocation over time rather than forced displacement. We think about relocation as a long, thought out, planned process.’ Kiribati President Anote Tong stressed this in his address to the opening session of the 2008 UN General Assembly: The relocation of 100,00o people of Kiribati, for example, cannot be done overnight. It requires long term foward planning and the sooner we act, the less stressful and less painful it will be for all concerned. This is why my Government has developed a long-term merit-based relocation strategy as an option for our people. As leaders, it is out duty to the people we serve to prepare them for the worst-case scenario.
Australia refuses to plan ahead
In ‘Engaging our Pacific Neighbours on Climate Change’ – Australia’s latest climate policy statement issued in August 2009 – the Rudd government notes: ‘The potential for climate change to displace people is increasingly gaining international attention. Australians are aware of and concerned about this issue.’ But we need more than awareness and concern. Successive Australian governments have failed to engage in foward planning involving communities and governments around the region, to address the issues of displacement from a rights-based approach.
For many years, Pacific Rim governments have been reluctant to publicly address this issue. In October 2006,the then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone stated that her Department had not made any plans to deal with people displaced by environmental or climate change, arguing, ‘There’s no such thing as a climate refugee’. In November 2006, Secretary of the Department of Immigration Andrew Metcalfe told a Senate estimates hearing that the Australian Government had done no planning on how people movement caused by climate change in the Asia-Pacific region might affect Australia. Since then, however, the debate has been flourishing amongst security analysts and strategic think tanks, which have focused on border protection and the potential for conflict overland and resources. In 2007, the then Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty sparked a political debate when he argued that climate change will turn border security in Australia’s biggest policing issue this century. He stated that climate change could increase displacement and migration in our region. ’In their millions, people could begin to look for new land and they will cross oceans and borders to do it. Existing cultural tensions may be exacerbated as large numbers of people undertake forced migration. The potential security issues are enormous and should not be understated.’
The securitisation of the debate has also been highlighted in Force 2030 – the May 2009 Defence White Paper issued by the Rudd government. This is the first the climate issue has been discussed in a Defence White Paper, but it does not really reflect a shift in focus from ‘national security’ to ‘human security’. In the paper, action on climate changed in reframed through the prism of border security: The main effort against such developments will of coarse need to be undertaken through co-ordinated international climate change mitigation and economic assistance strategies…should these and other strategies fail to mitigate the strains relating to climate change and they exacerbate existing precursors for conflict, the Goverment would probably have to use the ADF as an instrument to deal with any threats inimical to our interests.
Will people displaced by global warming be redefined as ‘threats inimical to our interests’? Social justice activists need to reframe the debate, to highlight the right to development for affected communities wherever they are, rather than just focussing on the need for mitigation rights.