Climate and laws trap islanders

COP21: People on low-lying islands threatened by climate-related disasters are barred from seeking sanctuary because they are classed as economic migrants.

Migration from low-lying islands in the Pacific that are being overtopped with sea level rise and storms has already begun, but many others who want to escape have no money or passports to enable them to do and face being trapped.

This is the conclusion of a study into Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, three of the countries that are expected to become virtually uninhabitable later this century as sea levels rise.

One problem is that, under the Geneva Convention, only people fleeing wars and persecution by other humans can be granted refugee status. That leaves people trying to escape droughts, floods and natural disasters with no claim on other states. In Europe, for example, they are classed as economic migrants.

The study, conducted under the UN’s Pacific Climate Change and Migration project, was released at the COP21 climate summit in Paris, where the Alliance of Small Island States is among those campaigning for the UN to change international law and grant refugee status to people displaced by the effects of climate change.

Terrible gap

The report’s lead author, Koko Warner, a senior academic officer at the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security, said this was a terrible gap in international law on refugees.

This tide of climate refugees is certain to come and is just as predicable, but we are making no provisions for it either.

Koko Warner, a senior academic officer at the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security

“These people need to be protected by the Geneva Convention,” she said. “They have no human rights – yet human mobility is their only option for survival. We are denying them the right to gain a living, get a homeland, and live with dignity.”

Her report into three of the most vulnerable countries in the world highlights a problem that will bring hundreds of thousands of new refugees to the borders of Europe and other wealthy states in the next few years.

She said: “The rich nations of the world are dangerously unprepared for the tide of environmental refugees that will be arriving.

“What is happening as people flee the war in Syria was predictable, but we were unprepared for it and still have not solved it. This tide of climate refugees is certain to come and is just as predicable, but we are making no provisions for it either.”

The three Pacific nations surveyed in the study are tiny. Of the 10,857 people in Tuvalu, 15 per cent have already moved overseas to escape the inundation of the islands, and another 12 per cent have moved internally to safer ground.

Nauru has lost 10 per cent of its 10,084 population, and another 7 per cent wanted to go, but could not through lack of passport and money.

Kiribati, which is 10 times larger with a 103,058 population, has seen 1,000 people move overseas, another 8,000 move internally, and 10,000 want to leave the country but have no means to do so.

According to the report, 70 per cent of the remaining households in Tuvalu and Kiribati and 40 per cent in Nauru feel that migration will be their response as flooding, saltwater intrusion or droughts become more severe.

The report shows that the majority of people who left had gone to Fiji, which was sympathetic to their plight. The next largest destination was New Zealand, followed by Australia.

To get round the problem that these people had no status as refugees, there was an international effort to educate the islanders to become nurses, teachers and other valuable professions so that they could get work permits for overseas countries. These professionals could then send money home to support their families.

For many families with no bank accounts, no passports and few skills, this was not an available option, and they were being “trapped by ever worsening environment conditions with nowhere to go”, according to Warner.

Pulafagu Toafa, a member of the Tuvalu delegation to the Paris talks, told Climate News Network that life in her scattered island nation was getting increasingly difficult, with King Tides in February reaching ever further inland.

Getting worse

“What we really want to do is stay in our homeland and keep our culture and traditions,” Toafa said. “We love our country, but we need help to build big sea walls to protect us and our land.

“We only have 26 square kilometres of islands. We lost some smaller uninhabited islands in March during cyclone Pam, so it is getting worse And our wells now taste salty, so we have to survive on rainwater.

“Some younger people have gone to greener pastures, but they send money back for their families to help them survive. We do not want to become refugees of any kind but we want the world to limit the temperature rise to 1.5˚C and help us stay where we are.”

The report was part funded by the European Union, which is trying to prepare for future mass migration.

Peter Craig-McQuaide, head of the Climate Change Unit at Europe-Aid, said that, where possible, people should be helped to stay in their homeland by providing such things as fresh water tanks so they could collect rainwater. But in the longer term it is necessary to accept that they need the option of migration.

He said the need was to improve people’s lives, rather than making them more vulnerable. “Countries need to account for human mobility in their domestic and regional policies to ensure that if people must move they can do so in safety and dignity.” 

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