Pacific Wayfinder: Migrating with Dignity


Facing the prospect of rising sea levels swallowing their homes, many Pacific leaders and scholars are preparing for the worst, Eliorah Malifa writes for the Pacific Wayfinder series.

“We are not drowning, we are fighting.”

With the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, the world is beginning to grapple with the implications of climate change. But while much of the rest of the rest of the world is slowly beginning to act, Pacific island communities do not have the luxury of time.

For many years, Pacific leaders have amplified the human impact of climate change, and they are now looking for strategies to address the loss of lives, land, and livelihoods that are beginning to unfold.

To explore how Pacific countries are preparing for the future, Head of the World Bank in Kiribati, Akka Rimon, and former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, featured on the latest episode of the Pacific Wayfinder podcast.

President Tong emphasised that nations like Kiribati are on the frontline and feel isolated – hence the need to take action themselves.

“Now I’ve come to the conclusion that we will never be able to get the resources from the international community or any country in order to build the resources that we will need… we will one day have to relocate perhaps our entire population…we need to plan for it. And now I’m trying to encourage Australia and New Zealand to be partners in that,” he said.

Witnessing increasingly severe wildfires and changing weather patterns around the world has reinforced the need for people in the region to consider what actions need to be taken if they are to protect themselves from inundation. Unfortunately, the future looks grim.

Both Rimon and Tong agree on the need for Pacific communities affected by climate change to be able to migrate with dignity, should people be forced out of their homes by rising sea levels. Through her PhD research, Rimon specifically intends to draw lessons from Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme and New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category.

Rimon noted that without international law, robust loss and damage mechanisms, and recognition for climate-displaced persons, there is a real lack of protection available. However, she said that existing labour mobility schemes in Australia and New Zealand may be able to provide a blueprint for a future resettlement strategy.

“We don’t want to sensitise the issue and say give us jobs because we’re sinking, no… we’re going to migrate with the trade skills and whatever talents that you are short of, so it provides a win-win both for the host country and the second [recipient] country,” she said.

Given the international community’s lack of recognition for climate change displacement, the discussion around strategies for displaced persons and the ways to make these strategies attractive to receiving countries is complex.

However, there is resistance to displacement planning in the region, with many of those in the firing line focusing on slowing the process through stronger international actions on reducing emissions. This attitude was evident at a recent youth lead climate march in Wellington, where protestors chanted “we are not drowning, we are fighting.” President Tong said that this is an “emotional response”.

While he has historically fought for global action to slow the effects of climate change, he now believes leaders need to be ready to provide solutions for when the worst takes place.

There is also discomfort in the fact that the region is largely suffering the consequences of others’ actions. The Pacific contributes approximately 0.03 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet Pacific Islanders are some of the first to experience the severe impacts of climate change.

Rimon is one of several Pacific scholars emphasising that at-risk communities are seeking out strategies that allow for ‘displacement with dignity’, rather than being conceptualised as climate refugees.

This conversation has been initiated by Pacific leaders and continues in earnest throughout the region. Through research into viable alternatives for resettlement of climate-displaced communities, leaders and scholars are planning for futures that are not desirable, but are becoming a reality.

President Tong believes policymakers may have to “rewrite the rules” to come up with solutions that will accommodate people, such as those from Kiribati.

“It’s like being in the Titanic movie. For countries like Australia in the lifeboat – will they let us onboard or push us off? We need some firm commitments… People are talking about cutting emissions, but we are well past that – we are gone. So how do we change the rules, change the narrative?”

This may seem bleak, but the impact of inaction could be devastating. Communities in Kiribati and throughout the region may hope for the best but, given the speed of change, should prepare for the worst.

Eliorah Malifa

This article is from our Pacific Wayfinder series, bringing you voices from the Pacific Island region. It is produced in conjunction with the Pacific Wayfinder podcast, produced by the Australia Pacific Security College.

This was co-published with Policy Forum

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