The harsh waves crashed and ocean sprayed upon a makeshift seawall of broken bricks. The flimsy barricade serves as a last line of defence for the island peoples of Kiribati as they continue to battle the perpetually rising sea levels of the Pacific Ocean.
As the waters continue to advance, locals are concerned that the waves are increasing every year in both size and frequency. While some have contemplated leaving the islands, the native peoples’ historical ties to the land make it hard for many to leave. As one woman says: “I have heard of climate change, but we have to stay and fight the sea.”
The woman, known as Mrs Tearaiti, is a 48-year-old elder currently residing in a small village along one of the coastal seawalls. As the waves continuously batter her land, it would seem like only a matter of time until the water would breach the barrier and enter her village. Should this occur, many of the homes in Mrs Tearaiti’s village including her own could be washed away. In light of this potential environmental threat, the future of Mrs Tearaiti and that of many others may depend upon the viability of climate change migration.
The advent of global warming has dominated public headlines and attention within the scientific community. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the impacts of climate change cannot be reversed. According to atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira the climate impacts of carbon emissions will last “longer than Stonehenge”. The increase in global temperatures will see large extents of polar ice caps melt and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increase.
A contributor to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group reports, Professor Elisabeth Holland says the world has experienced a 20 cm sea-level rise since 1900 and is poised to hit 1 m by 2100. Low-lying landmasses and deltas would be severely impacted potentially causing people to relocate themselves across borders in search of safety. “Those facts alone say that we need to be thinking about how to move people and how to do it in an orderly and supported way that doesn’t create a security crisis,” she said.
While climate change, cross-border migration is not a new phenomenon; there is currently no international legal framework that governs the relocation of individuals affected by climate change occurrences. Last year, Ioane Teitoita attempted to seek refugee status in New Zealand due to the effects of climate change in Kiribati. His request was denied, as his case did not meet the legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 International Refugee Convention. The international statute requires nations to accept refugees on the grounds of political, religious and racial persecution, but does stipulate any guidelines for a climate change migrant claim.
The Australian Refugee Tribunal in a similar case regarding the ongoing and potential claims of Kiribati nationals came to the conclusion that climate change was not grounds enough to attain refugee status. “The Tribunal does not believe that the element of an attitude or motivation can be identified, such that the conduct feared can be properly considered persecution for reasons of a convention characteristic as required,” it said.
Although in 1997 the IPCC stated that in some cases migration and resettlement across borders should be considered, especially in low-lying areas and small island nations, which could be affected by rising sea levels. Most island nations only have an average elevation of 1-3m above sea level, putting them in danger should any further increases occur.
Director of the Centre of International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, Professor Jane McAdam says that legal frameworks must be implemented by countries and organisations to assist individuals who could be potentially at risk. “One thing we want to avoid is a situation where it means that individuals have to try get themselves out of the country,” said McAdam. Without law and policy in place to address this, claims will continue to occur whereby people must attempt to articulate their situation within a narrow scope of refugee laws that may not apply to them.
While individual nations remain confused as to how to deal with the issue of climate change and cross-border migration, much deliberation has occurred at the international level on this topic. The UN climate change conference (COP16) paragraph 14(f) stated that climate change migration could be viewed as an adaptation method. “If we conceive of migration and planned relocation as ways in which individuals and communities can adapt, then we start thinking of migration and movement as something that is potentially proactive and positive,” said McAdam. As preventing climate change is no longer an option, adaptation methods as such are now taking precedence.
She says that paragraph 14(f) has had a “catalytic effect” throughout international migrant policy causing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to lobby nations worldwide to give them a legal mandate in dealing with future climate migration events. Although, the nations in the standing committee of UNHCR’s Executive Committee declined this request, highlighting the eagerness of its individual nations in dealing with its own migration matters independently.
These findings highlight the complex nature of climate change cross-border migration, which remains a contentious issue that requires immense discussion between the international community and its nations. More specifically, those who make the laws and those will be affected by them.
Spokesperson for the Alliance of Small Island States, Rennier Gabadu says the organisation is yet to discuss this issue. The organisation represents 44 countries from the Caribbean to the Pacific and due to the controversial nature of climate change cross-border migration have no consensus yet on the matter.
In an attempt to understand the nature of climate change migration as well as its potential solutions, an intergovernmental body known as the Nansen Initiative has been tasked with researching and advising the international community on this issue. Their reports assess at-risk regions from the Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and Central America to assist in the development of strategies for climate related cross-border migration. As risks vary from country to country so too do the socio-political circumstances in which migration policies are assessed.
Head of the Nansen Initiative secretariat, Atle Soberg says the initiative is not seeking to develop new legal standards or policies. “[Our aim] is to work with states to find consensus on what should be the key principles and elements to better protect people that are displaced across borders,” said Mr. Soberg.
Within the Pacific, the studies found that most efforts would be focused towards climate change adaptation methods, such as seawalls and weather resistant housing. Cross-border migration would be considered to take place slowly over a lengthy period of time. Initiatives such as the labour migration schemes that let nations of Pacific Island countries work in Australia and New Zealand under temporary status were considered as models for appropriate relocation.
In Central America the discussions focused on building on existing laws and policies for future cross-border migration. Central American countries have, in the past, mutually assisted each other during natural disasters such as during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Mr. Soberg stated that the initiative have suggested the drafting of regional standards between these nations to streamline their laws and policies to better enable cross-border migration should a climate change related incident occur.
In the case of African nations, the Nansen Initiative explored the concept of modifying the African Refugee Convention as a potential framework for future climate related migration. The convention was previously used in 2011 to relocate Somali refugees to neighbouring countries escaping conflict and drought. The initiative suggests that these laws could be utilised to substantiate a climate migrant claim.
Mr. Soberg says that research into Asian climate migration has proven difficult to gather, as most migration cases can’t be substantiated by one specific cause. Most migration isn’t solely the result of environmental events but usually a cluster of issues. “There are 2.7 million persons from Myanmar in Thailand working in the manufacturing industry and there was a peak in those numbers after cyclone Nargis in 2008,” said Mr. Soberg. Although it could be assumed that the cyclone was to blame for the migration, findings such as these make it difficult to suggest trends or advise on policy change.
Mr. Soberg suggests that we must further understand the interrelated issues associated with climate change migration and discussions must take place within the international community for this to occur. “If [we] don’t understand a problem very clearly [our] solutions will be poorly designed,” said Mr. Soberg.
While the nature of climate change migration remains a multi-faceted issue, the success of its solutions rely upon thorough research and discussion to create policy that is region specific. Yet, this should not deter the international community and its lawmakers from drafting a framework or guiding principles to inform worldwide governments.
The ideologies behind the preservation of human life in the wake of a climate change event stands as equal to the value of protecting against racial, religious persecution and war. Drawing upon this philosophy and existing human rights law that protects non-discrimination and human dignity are essential for the safety of those in the future.
While locally specific solutions will be more difficult to frame, a flexible regional frameworks in conjunction with international law would be ideal in addressing the issue. Much of this is dependent on countries in each region cooperating with one another and developing mutual agreements on how climate change cross-border migration will play out.
“[We need to be] clearer in advance about what will happen so that people will know that if they are forced to flee, these things will fall into place. Rather than every new incident meaning a new response,” said McAdam.
As sea levels rise due to climate change effects, the need for the international community to act becomes increasingly necessary for the survival of inhabitants in at risk regions. Although an unprecedented phenomenon, the global community still has time to act and develop pragmatic responses so as to avoid a situation where laws are unable to address migrant needs.
While governments and international bodies recognise climate change as a pertinent issue, the inability to deal with this facet of the problem could prove hazardous for a new wave of refugees in the near future.