Written by Eberhard Weber.

Climate change poses a significant threat to Small Island Developing States (SIDS). There are fears that entire atoll states in the Pacific (e.g. Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu) will disappear below rising sea-levels.  When these states become inhabitable in a few decades, their citizens will have no other choice than to resettle to other countries. Politicians are worried that climate change will trigger migration flows on a scale and impact that is unknown. For example, they worry that pressures on ailing social support systems in developed countries may become potential sources of conflict.

Yet history shows that the people of Pacific Island nations have been on the move for thousands of years. Since the islands of the Pacific became settlements some 3,500 years ago, people have been moving around, expanding their influence, trading with their neighbours and creating a complex demographic structure throughout the Pacific Island region. When the first Europeans appeared in the 15th century, migration among the Pacific Islands began to slow down and became more restricted. In the second half of the 19th century, due to the economic interests of the colonial powers, they moved people within the Pacific Island region to provide labour to the plantations and mines in Queensland (sugar), Fiji (sugar), Samoa (copra), Angaur, Banaba and Nauru (phosphate) and New Caledonia (nickel). Later, when labour became scarce within the Pacific Islands, workers were contracted from the Asian colonies of European powers. During this process Fiji received an influx of people of Indian origin; the Germans brought workers from China to work in the copra plantation in Samoa, and in the French colonies indentured labourers from French Indochina were recruited. As a result of the colonial labour trade in the second half of the 19th century, a significant proportion of the Pacific Island peoples came from other Pacific societies and Asia.

Pacific Islanders who have to leave their homelands do not like the term ‘climate refugee’. Although they are displaced, they are also aware that the term refugee often has negative connotations; people with rights on paper, but very little in reality.

The third stage of migration among Pacific Islands started when colonial powers resettled entire islands from within their empires. Major examples include the relocation of the people of Banaba (today Kiribati), who were brought to Rabi Islands (today Fiji) in December 1945. Another example is the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme (PISS) under which people from the Southern Gilbert Islanders (today Kiribati), were brought to the Phoenix Islands in 1938. Due to water scarcity they were resettled to the Western Province of today’s Solomon Islands in the 1950s. This form of migration most resembles what often is meant when people refer to climate change migration: to evacuate the entire population of an island, and bring them – as a group – to safety in their new home countries.

In the past few years, the Pacific Island nations have been repeatedly highlighted when issues around climate change and migration have been discussed. There is little doubt that deterioration in environmental quality is going to be a major reason for people to move.

Pacific Islanders who have to leave their homelands do not like the term ‘climate refugee’. Although they are displaced, they are also aware that the term refugee often has negative connotations; people with rights on paper, but very little in reality. Pacific Islanders do not want climate change refugees to be a feature of refugee conventions. If they are forced to leave their homes, they must be able to do so in dignity.

Social scientists highlight that the reasons why people migrate are complex, and are usually down to multiple factors. It is not necessarily the most vulnerable to climate change who leave first, either. International migration is very much influenced by people’s own agency; by their opportunities and constraints. This usually means that those who are not the most affected by climate change, leave first. These are usually the people who have the resources to go elsewhere; people who are more able to integrate into other societies and labour markets. Those who do not have the resources or the skills to leave, will continue to stay. To evacuate these people and to bring them to safety will be a huge challenge, and is as realistic as wanting to save the hundreds of millions of people living in misery and destitution all over the developing world.

Knowing that in the next few decades, people from Pacific Islands might have to move away, leaders of Pacific Island nations emphasise again and again that they do not want their people to be regarded as environmental refugees. Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, for example, does not leave us in any doubt that he is aware that a time might come when the 32 atolls of his country are unsuitable for the people of Kiribati to live on. President Tong has started to seek out alternatives for more than 100,000 people; not as environmental refugees, but as people who ‘migrate in dignity’.

In February 2014 Fiji’s then President Nailatikau affirmed to the people of Kiribati “that you will not be refugees […]. You will be able to migrate with dignity […]. If the sea level continues to rise because the international community won’t tackle global warming, some or all people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji.”  Three months later, the Government of Kiribati purchased 5,460 acres of land on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island. President Tong stressed that the land is to strengthen Kiribati’s food security, and not to relocate the people of Kiribati to Fiji.

In Fiji, a large number of relocation initiatives have been announced in the last few years. In January 2014, the country’s Prime Minister announced that 676 communities had been identified for relocation. By December 2017, two communities threatened by climate change will have been relocated, and another 40 communities will be relocated within the next 10 years.

Considering the increasingly hostile environment towards refugees in many developed countries, it seems prudent to work towards solutions within Pacific Island nations that enhances South-South cooperation and solidarity. Developed countries, however, also have a role to play: they should meet their obligations in helping Pacific Island countries relocate their citizens.

Eberhard Weber is a senior lecturer at the University of the South Pacific. His research interests are in environmentally-forced migration and environmental security. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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