Ioane Teitiota caught the world’s attention in 2015 when he fought to become the world’s first climate refugee.

He desperately tried to keep his family in New Zealand, and applied for refugee status, “on the basis of changes to his environment in Kiribati caused by sea-level-rise associated with climate change”.

That fight was unsuccessful and he was forced to return to Kiribati.

Teitiota struggled to find work upon his return, one of his children had become sick and was covered in school sores, and he’d moved to Kiritimati in search of work.

His lawyers weren’t surprised he lost his case – climate change doesn’t fit within the existing UN framework for refugees, and if he was successful, it would have set a groundbreaking legal precedent, opening the floodgates, so to speak.

“Who wants to give up their country, right?”

Since 2011, there have been 11 cases where people have tried to claim protected refugee status in New Zealand, based on climate change. All have failed.

This doesn’t mean the issue of climate displacement is going away.

As the impacts of climate change on the Pacific become more severe, New Zealand leaders are creating a plan for the inevitable migration caused by sea level rise and increasingly frequent, and intense, weather events.

From climate refugees to adaptation

Ahead of the 2017 election, Green Party leader James Shaw promised to create a targeted climate change visa, giving people the ability to move to New Zealand on humanitarian grounds.

At the time, the term ‘climate refugee’ was still used to refer to people expected to be displaced by climate change.

When Jacinda Ardern spoke to former US vice president, now climate activist, Al Gore in December 2017, she addresssed the looming issue of “the climate refugee discussion”.

She also referred to the recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme, and other employment opportunities for Pacific migrants, saying those types of schemes might be able to be adapted to address the issue, she told Gore via video link.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says people don’t want to give up their country and culture, so everything needs to be done to try and adapt. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Early on, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway also spoke about the development of a climate visa in the Government’s first term. There has been no progress on this, and for now, that plan has been abandoned.

Lees-Galloway refused to be interviewed about potential changes to migration settings, but a spokesperson said there were no specific plans for an ‘experimental visa’.

It has become apparent Pacific peoples have no appetite for anything that remotely resembles refugee status, which conjures up images of homeless, stateless people forced give up their land, and eventually culture.

Without any announcements, Government ministers and the Prime Minister gradually adjusted their language when talking about climate migration, and the term ‘climate refugee’ was no more.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Newsroom extensive conversations with Pacific nations have found people want to stay on their land.

“Who wants to give up their country, right?”

New Zealand and Australia could absorb the whole of the population of the Pacific Islands, but entire cultures and languages would be wiped out.

The leading principle of Government policy is people should be able to stay in their homelands, with dignity, Shaw says.

The people of Kiribati (pictured), along with Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, have been identified as being at a high risk of losing their homes due to climate change. Photo: Laura Walters

“We know that irregular migration is one of the big risks when it comes to climate change, so obviously we do need to do some thinking about it.

“But the islands themselves – their focus is very much on making sure they don’t have to move.”

This focus on adaptation is a key driver behind last year’s $714 million foreign aid budget allocation – half of which is destined for the Pacific.

In the case of Kiribati – one of the countries most at risk – there has been a strong push back from the current Government on the idea of ‘migration with dignity’, which was coined by former president Anote Tong.

But somewhere down the line, forced displacement is an undeniable reality for at least some Pacific peoples.

University of Otago researcher Dennis Wesselbaum’s work shows climate is now the strongest migration driver, and a 2018 World Bank report predicted significant global international migration by 2050. The 180,000 people living in Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands – alongside Tokelau and atolls in some larger nations – will be significantly affected by climate-related internal and cross-border migration, the report says.

So while the words ‘climate migration’ and ‘climate refugee’ have been struck from the political lexicon for now, politicians and officials know they need to continue to quietly work on a plan for the future.

NZ Government continues to work on a plan

Almost a year ago, Foreign Minister Winston Peters released a cabinet paper detailing a short-term and long-term action plan on climate-related displacement in the Pacific.

It lays out the risks to the Pacific region, especially low-lying countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu which, unlike larger and more mountainous countries like Fiji, have a lack of options for internal migration.

It builds a case for “early, calibrated and transparent New Zealand action on climate change-related displacement and migration”.

While risks vary, Pacific Island countries as a group are acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and poorly resourced to respond effectively, it says.

“The prospect of climate migration can appear overwhelmingly complex and intractable, especially when it could risk a threat to state viability.”

In Kiribati, space is already at a premium. Efforts to keep people in the outer islands are unsustainable, and the flow to the capital of South Tarawa – where more than half of the country’s 110,000 people live – is unstoppable, thanks to the economic opportunities and family connections.

In the village of Betio, the population density is similar to Hong Kong or Tokyo. There is no more space, and those who dare to live too close to the unprotected shoreline risk losing their homes to increasingly frequent inundation events.

Migration for at least some of the population seems inevitable.

In the short-term, New Zealand plans to use its increased official development assistance (ODA) to “avert and delay climate-related displacement”, while also preparing for migration, the paper says.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is also commissioning research as there is currently a lack of reliable data and knowledge about migration patterns, which makes it difficult to develop sound policy.

Immediate actions centre around mitigation, adaptation and research, but by 2024, the Government needs to have a plan in place for inevitable movement.

The former Kiribati government advocated for migration with dignity. The current government is focusing on adaptation. Photo: Supplied

That will include looking at the country’s domestic immigration settings, labour mobility opportunities, and the potential for a humanitarian visa.

The paper also raises the issue of international law. There have been recent efforts to work on an international framework, looking at countries’ obligations surrounding climate migration.

But the well-known fight over the UN migration compact – part of which aims to address sudden-onset and slow-onset movement due to climate change – proves the difficulty of reaching consensus on anything relating to migration in the current global political climate.

Add to that the provocative questions of maintaining self-determination, governance and nationhood, when leaving a country’s physical land. What happens to a country’s maritime boundaries and fisheries when their land sinks into the ocean? Or the dilemma created when a country continues to exist physically but is unable to sustain a population.

When set against a backdrop of other challenges, “the prospect of climate migration can appear overwhelmingly complex and intractable, especially when it could risk a threat to state viability”.

Climate migration a regional security issue

Defence Minister Ron Mark was the first to release a comprehensive paper assessing the defence force’s responsibilities and readiness to climate change challenges, and he says he wasn’t surprised the paper raised climate migration as a potential source of political and civil unrest in the Pacific.

Across the region, there have already been instances of communities being split up for relocation, some being moved to areas with different cultures without prior consultation with the host communities, and others being moved into already crowded areas, leading to heightened competition for scarce resources.

In such cases, there have been reports of conflict over land— sometimes deadly—and reports of increased levels of violence, including against women and children.

“This notion that you can pick up a whole race of people, a village; a town and relocate it into another is very naive, and it brings with it risks.”

If it’s not well managed, climate migration has the potential to heighten security concerns in the Pacific and Asia.

Mark says Pacific peoples are as connected to their land as Māori, and while historically they may have traditions of migration, there’s a strong sense of identity and culture tied to their land and their tribe.

“This notion that you can pick up a whole race of people, a villiage; a town and relocate it into another is very niave, and it brings with it risks.”

New Zealand can’t divorce itself from its responsibilities in the Pacific, he says. “And we can’t divorce ourself from the security risks that arise from climate change.”

It’s important to recognise displacement due to climate change is going to be a part of the future security landscape, and the best way to assist and mitigate against risks is to plan ahead, Mark says.

NZ not giving up the fight on adaptation

While others might be acknowledging the likelihood of climate migration, Peters says he is sticking with adaptation.

Part of his much-lauded Pacific Reset is a promise to work collaboratively, rather than paternalistically, with Pacific nations.

So it makes sense while current Pacific leaders are focusing on adaptation and mitigation, Peters is too.

When Newsroom asked Peters if the Government was preparing for the inevitable displacement of some Pacific people due to climate change, he said: “The problem with an affirmative answer to that question is it will have conceded that we can’t do a thing about it, when I believe we can…

“Across the Pacific we need to use the the best of our experience, best of our knowledge, and the best of the resources we’ve got, and as much assistance money as we can, to deal with the issue.”

Winston Peters says the focus needs to be on adaptation, and building up resilience to climate change, in the Pacific. Photo: Laura Walters

Peters says offering migration to New Zealand as a choice would send a message to island governments that New Zealand has given up, “and then that has all sorts of other ramifications”.

If New Zealand works with other partners in the Pacific, there is hope, he says.

Broken segments of seawall can be seen around South Tarawa. As the ocean and lagoon lap at either side of the snaking island, it’s hard to imagine a future where there will be enough productive land to house and support the growing population.

While the science is clear on climate change, the politics surrounding migration mean those creating policy need to walk a tightrope of hoping for the best and exploring all adaptation measures, while preparing for the worst in the long-term.

* Part 1 of this series is here

In Newsroom’s third instalment of the three-part climate migration series, Laura Walters will look at a world first adaptation project, which promises to be a gamechanger for Kiribati, and other islands facing their demise at the hands of climate change.

The reporter’s travel to the Pacific was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade through its Pacific Journalism Grant.

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