Pacific Islanders: Climate change creates new category of refugees

Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru natives are witnessing dire climate change consequences in their Pacific island homes, but they lack international recognition as refugees.

Francois Mori/AP
Tuvalu Prime Minister, Hon. Enele Sosene Sopoaga delivers his speech during a press conference as part of the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Paris, Thursday.

Many people of low-lying Pacific island nations are telling the world that they, too, need refugee asylum because of climate change induced sea-level rise.

While most countries associate "refugee crisis" with the current war in Syria, natives Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru say the effects of climate change are forcing them to leave their homes. According to a report by the United Nations University and the European Union showed Wednesday at the United Nations talks, "climate change refugees" from these three island states will be a prevalent international issue by 2055.

The three island nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru have felt the greatest impact of sea level rise thus far, with 94 percent, 97 percent and 74 percent of households respectively witnessing serious climate change-associated damages.

But other countries, such as New Zealand, have closed their doors to these Pacific islanders because they do not fit the typical refugee description. The UN refugee agency also opposes granting climate refugees the typical refugee benefits, such as asylum. 

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who is forced to move outside the country of his or her nationality “owing to a well-founded fear” of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or political opinion. Whereas migrants are defined as someone choosing to move in order to improve their future prospects, natives of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru say they deserve refugee status because climate change is forcing them from their homes. 

“Pacific islanders are facing the brunt of climate change impacts and are increasingly finding themselves with few options,” Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga told Reuters in reference to the report.

“Climate change is one of the really big stressors” and governments needs new ways to help, Koko Warner of the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Security told Reuters. “This issue is not only a Pacific issue; it is a global issue.” 

The three island nations compose a population of 124,000, with 3.2 percent already moving to other countries and another 7.5 moving internally because of climate change.

But experts say internal migration is not a long-term solution. 

“In both Kiribati and Tuvalu, internal migration is not a solution as most internal migration is to the already overpopulated capital cities,” the report explains. “These cities have high unemployment, limited availability of water, and are highly vulnerable to climate change.”

And even if (or when) they feel international migration is necessary, most Pacific islanders don’t have the money to do so. With a median monthly salary of $12, natives of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu can’t afford to leave their homes.

To avoid a refugee crisis, the report stresses immediate action through well-managed migration. 

“Without improved access to a comprehensive climate risk management strategy that includes options for mobility, a significant proportion of people from Nauru, Kiribati, and Tuvalu could be ‘trapped’ by worsening environmental conditions, declining local well-being and few opportunities to either migrate or generate income necessary for adapting,” the authors explain. 

This report includes material from Reuters.

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