Who should offer a safe haven for climate change victims?

Recent years saw the publication of several continent-wide studies on the citizenship and migration policies in Africa, the Americas and Asia. The Oceania/Pacific region, consisting of fourteen independent territories, has so far not been mapped in a broad study. These territories are, apart from Australia and New Zealand, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The World Bank estimates that all the smaller islands combined (Papua New Guinea excluded) “have a combined population of about 2.3 million people, scattered across an area equivalent to 15% of the globe’s surface”. If their citizenship policies are discussed, it is often from a statelessness angle or because of their citizenship-for-sale policies.



Despite the enormous variety within the region, what the islands have in common is that they share the same climate risk profile. The European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Department notes that “because of climate change, the region is witnessing intense fluctuations in weather patterns, such as changing temperatures and precipitation patterns, intense storms, and rising sea levels”.


The danger of climate change for low-lying atoll nations triggered a proposal by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, which is worth quoting in its entirety. However, the proposal was immediately shot down by Tuvaluan prime minister Enele Sopoaga, calling it an expression of neo-colonialist and imperialist thinking. Rudd’s proposal reads as follows (emphasis added):


There is one further implication arising from climate change for Australia. A number of neighbouring island states are facing the future disappearance of their countries altogether through coastal inundation. The most vulnerable of these Pacific Island states to the impacts of climate change are Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru. Australia should consider developing a proposal to these three states to enter into formal constitutional condominium with them, as we currently have with Norfolk Island. This would require constitutional changes in all four countries. If our neighbours requested this, and their peoples agreed, Australia would become responsible for their territorial seas, their vast Exclusive Economic Zones, including the preservation of their precious fisheries reserves. Under this arrangement, Australia would also become responsible for the relocation over time of the exposed populations of these countries (totalling less than 75,000 people altogether) to Australia where they would enjoy the full rights of Australian citizens. This figure is less than half of the total Australian regular immigration intake in any given year. If these countries start to submerge in the years ahead, Australia would face international pressure to provide safe haven for our pacific neighbours anyway. In effect, they would become climate change refugees and the world would look to Australia for leadership. As foreign minister, I had prepared a 2012 cabinet submission on this, just before leaving that office. As a result, it was not considered by the government. This work remains deeply relevant today. And will become even more so in the future as sea levels continue to rise.

If the United States Agency for International Development is to be believed, the common climate risk profile of the Pacific islands means that they are potentially affected by climate stressors and climate risks for a large number of categories including coastal zones and ecosystems; agriculture and food security; health; livelihoods and tourism; water resources; and energy and infrastructure. Thus, rising temperatures, increased drought frequency and other factors will likely lead to decreased nutrition and food security, loss of ocean diversity and a consequent reduced interest in ecotourism, and erosion leading to population displacement.


As radical as former PM Rudd’s proposal may sound, it should not be forgotten that many of the islands have only gained independence fairly recently and still have ties with former colonising powers, be they European or from the region itself. Vanuatu, for example, was jointly governed by France and Britain between 1906-1980 under the name Condominium of the New Hebrides. The island of Samoa, a German colony from 1900, came to be administered by New Zealand after WWI and gained independence in 1962. Papua New Guinea was originally a German colony too, later became part of Australia and acquired independence in 1975.


Finally, it is questionable whether it is wise to dismiss Rudd’s proposal outright given Australia’s generally tough policy towards (other) refugees, and its policy to hold asylum seekers arriving by sea on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea under conditions that have attracted a lot of international criticism.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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