Climate Change Refugees
There is no doubt that climate change will eventually force certain Pacific Islanders into becoming migrants. If one accepts this claim, then we need to immediately develop more effective climate change laws to govern the movement of these people. Last year, we may have already witnessed the first climate change refugee being denied his fundamental human right to security and migration with dignity. If so, he will probably not be the last. Others will certainly attempt to migrate on the same grounds. And, they will face the same legislative challenges. If we want to confront this problem, we new new alternatives. For example, we might need to explicitly classify climate change migrants as protected refugees under the United Nations Convention on Refugees.
Climate Change Villages
That said, we shouldn’t get sidetracked by individual cases. The scale of the problem posed by climate change across the region demands that we consider higher units of analysis. Consider Vuanidogoloa on Vanua Levu. By the time that it was directly breached by rising sea levels last year, inflowing soil and increasing salinity levels had already compromised food security and water security on the island. The Government of Fiji was arguably forced to relocate its first climate change village as a result.
Along with Vuanidogoloa, four other climate change village relocations are now underway across the Fiji. And, there are even tentative plans for up to fifty more villages to relocate within the next 5-10 years. While Fiji is beginning to adapt to the many threats posed by climate change, lower-lying Pacific Island countries (e.g., Kiribati and Tuvalu) have been dealing with these issues for decades. Unfortunately, they have also become dependent on imported goods for their very survival along the way.
A Non-Traditional Security Threat
As these examples illustrate, climate change has already had a major impact on security across the region. Not only has it undermined public health and facilitated the spread of Non-Communicable Diseases by denying many communities the ability to grow fresh food crops or consume fresh natural water. It has also well on its way to undermining food security and water insecurity to such an extent that many communities will eventually be forced into migration. From a security perspective, this threatens many of unique cultures that are at the core of our shared Pacific identity.
Moreover, these negative effects force Pacific Island countries to focus their attention on climate change at the expense of many other security threats. In fact, resources and finances are increasingly redirected towards programs that are designed to familiarize islanders with the downsides of climate change. While these programs are certainly helping to raise awareness and build capacity on climate change at all levels of society, they are also leading many island communities to put other important issues on the back-burner. For example, promoting human rights in places like West Papua.
The Idea of Camps
With this in mind, let us return to the question of climate change migrants? In 2013, the island of Nauru opened a refugee camp for those who are defined and protected by the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Though this may have been merely an agreement between the governments of Australia and the Nauru to promote local employment opportunities, one has to wonder if similar camps could ever provide a policy solution for dealing with climate change refugees.
From my perspective, it remains an open question. While such camps provide obvious benefits, one has to wonder whether we should ever incentivize climate change migrants from one island communities affected by climate change to relocate en masse to a neighboring island. If we want to go down that path, then how do we manage the secondary security challenges that will inevitably arise? For example, how do we manage the problems associated with allowing climate change refugees the right to resettle for a fixed amount of time on a neighboring island where local laws would enable them to become citizens within that time? These are the questions that we need to start asking. But, for the most part, we’re still not.
At the end of the day, the idea of refugee camps as a policy solution for dealing with climate change refugees certainly warrants consideration. But, are camps really the best solution? If we want to answer this question, we first need to seriously address the secondary problems associated with this policy approach. Until we do, the jury is still out.
Adi Litia Cakobau Nailatikau is a next generation policymaker from Fiji. She is currently participating in the East West Center’s Leadership Program with Taiwan. Previously, she worked with the JET Program in Miyakojima, Okinawa, Japan. She also served as a long- term volunteer in her community in Suva, Fiji. Nailatikau earned a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of the South Pacific, majoring in Environmental and International Law. After the Leadership Program with Taiwan, she plans to continue pursuing postgraduate studies in Climate Change and International Relations.
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