Michelle is completing a Masters of Advanced Journalism at UTS. Areas of interest include religion, spirituality and cultural diversity.
Experts are calling on Australia to play a key role in helping Pacific nations at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels.
Professor of Geography at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario Dr Robert McLeman said Australia needed to take action as “the political superpower in the South Pacific” by cultivating bilateral agreements – such as labour migration and family reunification deals – that will allow Pacific residents to migrate before they may be forcibly displaced.
Dr McLeman said developing countries like those in the Pacific are more susceptible to changes in their environment and displacement due to lack of infrastructure.
“If we want to talk about resilience in the face of climate change, we’re really talking about just building broader resilience in general, making sure that these less developed parts of the world… have access to the things that you and I take for granted: clean water to drink, sanitation to deal with our own waste, a diversity of employment opportunities, basic education.
Because when you dig down into the research on what makes people vulnerable to climate change, nine times out of ten you find it’s the same stuff that makes them vulnerable to a whole bunch of other stuff, whether you’re talking about childhood mortality or underdevelopment economically or inequality in gender terms and things like that.”
Erica Bower, UNHCR Associate Climate Change Officer, said UNHCR did not endorse the term “climate refugees” often used to describe those displaced by climate change. The organisation prefers the phrase “persons displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disasters”.
People displaced by environmental factors don’t meet the legal definition of a refugee, which the 1951 Refugee Convention describes as facing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. UNHCR also predicts most people impacted by climate change will be displaced within their own countries and won’t cross an international border, making them ineligible for refugee status.
Yet Ms Bower said expanding the refugee definition wasn’t viable, potentially undermining the protections available to existing refugees. She recommends a “toolbox” of solutions including temporary protection and humanitarian visas that would allow affected populations to “migrate with dignity”.
“This involves making sure that pathways for mobility are safe, regular, orderly… This involves… ensuring that people… who are leaving small island developing states in the Pacific… have access to work visas in a country like Australia that would allow them to migrate but through a channel that is regular, where they have access to healthcare and they have access to education, where they have access to employment on the other side. So that’s what dignity entails. It’s having access to all of the requirements for a sustainable solution once you have moved to a new population.”
One of the Pacific nations threatened by rising sea levels is Kiribati, a collection of 33 small islands located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, most of which are only a couple of metres above sea level.
Melbourne writer Marita Davies was a dual Australian and Kiribati citizen. Although she lives in Australia, she sees the sea levels rise more and more each time she visits her family in Kiribati.
Since 1993, Kiribati sea levels have risen by 1-4mm per year, and are predicted to rise by 7-17cm by 2030 if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.
Marita says Kiribati residents are building sea walls to protect their homes from high tides and planting mangrove trees to help solidify the sand. Despite such efforts, rising sea levels are reducing the already small amount of habitable land and contaminating wells with seawater, threatening clean water supplies and causing health problems.
She believes education and labour migration schemes can ensure the people of Kiribati have a future. Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program allows residents of Pacific nations to work temporarily in Australian sectors experiencing labour shortages, while the Northern Australia Worker Pilot Program provides up to 250 visas for citizens of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru to work in the Northern Territory. Such schemes allow individuals to remit money to their families and gain skills they can use back home to build up their country’s infrastructure and resilience to climate change.
Australia is the largest aid provider to Kiribati, scheduled to invest $30.9 million in 2017-18. But Marita is worried about Australia’s “patronising” attitude to the people of Kiribati and negativity toward migration.
“There’s this real fear of people wanting to inundate Australia. And speaking on behalf of Kiribati people, they don’t want to do that. No one wants to leave their home. Their whole culture is connected to the land, and the land is so important to them.”
“Australia’s being impacted by climate change as well and they are part of the Pacific. And everyone should be working together more as a family… I feel like whatever they do for Kiribati, they will expect… Kiribati people to be thanking them the whole time.”
As part of her efforts to raise awareness about Kiribati and Pacific cultures, Marita wrote a children’s book depicting how climate change is impacting Kiribati.
“The biggest problem is that so many people don’t even know Kiribati exists. And if you don’t know where Kiribati is or the people there or the culture, then why would you care?… So I’m on a mission to really be spreading the Kiribati culture, not just the problems that they’re encountering with the environment. I really want people to see that this tiny group of atolls and islands, they are so full of culture, they are so full of life, they are so unique to anywhere else in the world.”
She sees a positive sign in initiatives like Humans of Kiribati, a Facebook group helping to raise awareness about Kiribati that has gained over 55,000 followers since 2015.
“That’s what I would be doing, is just learn about these countries, learn that they’re not sitting there groveling for help. They want to be sharing their culture and they want to share the problems they are going through and say: It’s not just us. It’s everyone. We’re all in this together and how do we figure this out?"