The Climate Change Refugees of the Pacific

People relocating for environmental reasons do not yet fit into any specific category in the existing international legal framework. But the "environmental refugees" represent a minority the world can no longer ignore.

When people think of refugees, the first thing that crosses their mind is either war, economic crisis or poverty. But just a very few of us lose a thought on migration provoked by climate change. However, as of 2022, there are about 35 million refugees roaming the world, according to the website of the UN Refugee Agency (2020). These numbers increase dramatically to 110 million, when internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and people in need of international protection are added to the equation. But what about those displaced through climate change, such as the populations of Kiribati and other Pacific islands? How are they perceived by the international community, and what role will they play in the foreseeable future?

The main reasons behind the phenomenon

Environmental transformations and disasters have historically played significant roles in motivating population migrations. This departure can be either temporary or permanent and may occur within a single country or across international borders (IOM, 2019). Furthermore, it is important to make a distinction between environmental migrations, due to natural disaster -so not caused by human actions- and climate migration, which is a current global problem created by humanity.

This fact is attributed to the escalating frequency and severity of extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and storms; also the rising sea level is one of the reasons why people are forced to leave their countries (IPCC, 2014). At the moment, there is no universally accepted legal definition for individuals compelled to move due to environmental factors, nor is there an internationally recognized one. Although the situations and requirements of these individuals can closely resemble those of traditional refugees - including the necessity for protection and assistance, especially when crossing borders - people relocating for environmental reasons do not neatly fit into any specific category outlined by the existing international legal framework. Consequently, terms such as "climate change refugee" or "environmental refugee" lack a legal foundation within international refugee law.

The tragic case of Kiribati

Climate migration is a phenomenon of global scale, but some areas are more affected by it than others, because of their geographical position and morphological characteristics. The pacific islands are among the most compromised in the world, since many of them are in danger of disappearing because of the rising sea level. A concrete example is Kiribati, a country with 32 atolls which are, on average, two meters above sea level. The rise in global sea level has increased by 61% in the last few years, going from a trend of 2.6 mm/year during 1993–2008 to a trend of 4.2 mm/year during 2007–2022. If this trend were to continue, we can expect Kiribati to disappear.  But not only Kiribati is affected by the sea rising level problem, it is something that concerns all the Pacific Islands: the definition of statehood under international law has four specific criteria: population, government, the capacity to enter into relations with other countries, and also a physical territory. This last point can be critical for all the Pacific islands, they could possibly lose their status if they are forced to relocate to a different place.

Complex problems require complex solutions

The obstacles are plentiful, but so are the solutions found by the representatives of the area: as a matter of fact, the current Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, is working on elevating the islands from the sea, mainly through dredging (basically, clearing the seabeds with a dreg, and taking the materials to create more land).

But not every problem has a physical solution, the Pacific islands also have to deal with the international law issue explained before: as a consequence, Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu - another highly vulnerable nation - has decided to take a stand through a diplomatic approach by launching a pledge for other nations to recognize the legitimacy of its statehood, whether if their territorial integrity prevails or not.

Regardless of geographical localization or social status, displacement caused by climate change will have an impact on everybody’s life. It is crucial to start finding both practical and diplomatic solutions to deal with the situation before time runs out.






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