In just a few short months, these two countries, along with the rest of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), hope to broker a deal with industrialized countries on strict mitigation measures at the international climate conference (COP21) in Paris. This is in a bid to prevent their homes from disappearing. Simply put, Pacific Islanders prefer not to move. They balk at the word “climate refugee”, with good reason. But, despite their commitment to push for carbon cuts, they remain pragmatic in their approach to solutions. "We have more than enough time now to train [migrants], to up-skill them, so that they can be worthwhile citizens when we relocate them as a community, not as refugees," President Tong told the Australian Broadcasting Agency. Indeed, Fiji’s offer to Kiribati is but one of possible actions happening in the Pacific right now.
“Migration as Adaptation” in the Pacific
Many academics believe that migration can be a form of adaptation. Cecilia Tacoli, senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), states that mobility "is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalization.” Jon Barnett and Michael Webber of University of Melbourne agree: remittances can "smooth consumption of basic needs such as food across seasons; sustain access to basic needs in times of livelihood shocks such as drought; finance the acquisition of human, social, physical and natural capital; and increase demand and so stimulate local production.”
But this isn’t purely academic blather. Mobility is an important part of indigenous Pacific identity. “On the small islands of the Pacific, seafaring, oceanic and mobile cosmologies are profoundly important. Land, although significant, does not delimit Pacific economic, social, and cultural values. The ocean is a powerful marker of identity and practice,” Carol Farbotko, a research scientist at CSIRO, notes.
It is also a long-entrenched structure in today’s modern world. There are extensive links between Pacific Islands and regional economic nodes; namely, Australia and New Zealand, with over 265,974 Pacific Islanders residing in New Zealand and 166,272 in Australia. This has been aided by temporary worker schemes and perpetuated by diaspora connections.
Regional Solutions for Regional Problems?
These regional links, amongst Pacific Islands and OECD countries, look set to deepen and harden as climate change increasingly threatens traditional livelihoods in the Pacific. Indeed, The International Labour Organisation (ILO), UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), and UN Development Programme (UNDP) look to analyze the potential of migration as adaptation through a 3 year project on “Pacific Climate Change and Migration.” According to its website, the project covers 11 different Pacific countries and attempts to facilitate national actions in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru, in particular, through enhanced national capacity to effectively participate in regional, bilateral, and global schemes on labor migration. Sophia Kagan, technical officer for the ILO, argues that unemployment and limited opportunities in Kiribati and Tuvalu should lead to the creation of preferential quota schemes in Australia and New Zealand. Whether or not this regional model of labor migration proves fruitful in the face of climate change is yet to be seen.
Certainly, there are some obstacles. From a practical standpoint, New Zealand and Australia are both wary of climate-induced migration. In 2014, a Tuvaluan man applied for asylum, partially based on climate change, in New Zealand—his overture failed. Australia, in general, is going through major upheaval in terms of asylum and migration policies, which looks set to continue so long as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition remains in power. Perhaps more worrying are claims that “migration as adaptation” is simply a neoliberal construction. Despite this, calls for regional solutions, particularly in the realm of migration, are on the rise; especially since international legally binding mechanisms are non-existent and highly contested.
But can these policies stand in other parts of the world? In the most recent Forced Migration Review, researchers at the Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies (CEDEM), University of Liège, argued that West Africa and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) could prove a good testing ground.
However, they find that “the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement allows in principle all ECOWAS citizens the right of admission in member states but relies heavily on political cooperation and goodwill.” This isn’t surprising: regional cooperation is always easier said than done. This kind of outlet is also, perhaps, outside the remit of climate change solutions. Although migration is seen as a possible adaptation strategy pursuant to the Cancun Adaptation Framework, just how policies will be separate from current migration schemes not linked to climate change remains unclear. We may very well see just how far these types of policies will translate into action at COP21 in Paris.