Climate change migrants reluctant to leave homes

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Coping with mass migration from Pacific Island nations affected by rising sea levels caused by climate change was on top of the agenda for a regional meeting in Rarotonga last week.

Audio: Climate change migrants reluctant to leave homes (Credit: ABC)

The European based Nansen Initiative led the consultations and workshops which concluded with discussion with government ministers from across the region.

Rather than come up with hard and fast rules for dealing with disaster-related mass migration the talks looked at the challenges involved and what planning was needed to cope should the eventuality occur.

Presenter:Geraldine Coutts

Speaker:Professor Walter Kaelin, Nansen Initiative

KAELIN: Well there's an acceptance that people will have to move because of the affects of climate change, the frequency of some natural disasters from reef storms, high tides, and so on affected our coastal ocean as a consequence of rising sea levels. However, there's no agreement that these people should be called refugees. Refugees are people who are persecuted and this is not the case with those who are displaced, in the context of natural disasters and climate change. They're governments, unlike in the case of refugees do not turn against them.

COUTTS: So is it the term "refugee" that is inhibiting the progress forward say in by lawmakers to actually get legislation that fits this category of displaced persons?

KAELIN: Well, if you're looking at the law, both international and domestic laws, people who have to move in the context of financial disasters and climate change are not recognised yet as people who should be admitted and protected and that's, of course, a challenge, because it's a reality worldwide. If you're looking, for instance, at Eastern Africa. When you go to refugee camps in Kenya, you'll find besides those who have been seeing the war in Somalia, people who have just been displaced by droughts and had a hard time to find refuge outside they're on country, where they couldn't get access in humanitarian assistance, where there was no government to turn to.

If you're looking at Haiti, after the earthquake, the same thing. Some people couldn't access humanitarian aid. They tried to go to other countries and found it very hard to do that.

And turning to the Pacific, of course, we're not right now talking about such movements, but the perspective of rising sea levels raises the issue and when these people have a place to turn to, what will be their protection, what will be their status? This was what we discussed last week in Rarotonga.

COUTTS: Well, that's obviously a challenge. What label can be given to this group of people who are affected by climate change and there are a number of countries already in the Pacific who are. What are some of the other challenges? I mean the lawmakers haven't yet got their head around it either, so governments haven't. Has this been used an excuse not to doing anything, because the invitations aren't being issued readily to countries in need to have them come and be immigrants to respective countries. Australia, for one, has turned down a number of invitations issued by some Pacific Island nations. So those are the challenges. Are there solutions yet?

KAELIN: Actually, what is needed in the Pacific region is really a thorough discussion among governments. Somehow best to approach this challenge.

Last week, two things became clear. First, that Pacific Islanders do not really want to move. They want to stay as long as possible and they look at immigration and relocation really as the least wanted solution. The second thing that became clear is that we need whole tool box, different instruments to respond to the challenges.

First participants very much stretched. It's still necessary to do whatever is possible to help them to stay. We call this adaptation measures. But second, some people have wanted to move, want to migrate temporarily or permanently. For instance, to be able to send money back to their relatives so they can stay on longer or because they think for payment??? their families, their future is to bleak, so it's better to move now. They were talking about migration, voluntary migration as way to adapt to the climate change.

In the Pacific region, there are some programs to allow people to move, when Australia have the seasonal workers program, New Zealand has a certain quota for these people, but that's a beginning and a very good example. It probably needs to be expanded.

And last, but not least, and here we're very far away from any kind of agreement or solution we would need some rules and principles that would allow people really to go to other countries when there's no alternative left and they have to move.

Now the third point that was raised and many of the participants insisted on that, movements are already taking place, not just to Australia and New Zealand, but very much among Pacific Island nations, be it to Fiji, be it also to the Cook Islands, for instance. Some stressed that some of the Pacific nations are faced with depopulation and that they could bring interested in to have people like from Kiribati, moving, because they need labour, they need additional population. But again, we're very far away from having all of this implemented here at the beginning of the discussion.

COUTTS: The Nansen Initiative on Disaster Induced Cross Border Displacement is a state-led bottom up consultative process. Grassroots, are you hearing different attitudes and concerns from the grassroots, compared to what the governments of respective Pacific Island nations are telling you?

KAELIN: At the grassroots level, many people really want to hold onto their land, to their houses. They do not like governments to talk about the prospect of having to move.

At the same time, they remember a past, bad examples of the locations, talking, for instance, about people who have been relocated after World War Two from Banaba to Fiji. Bad experiences, and they exist next time and we have to be relocated, it should be differently, then our rights would be protected. They should be consulted, they should participate, otherwise it's a negative experience again.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation