Small islands negotiating for survival at climate talks

by Olivia Santiago, Brown University
Friday, 22 November 2013 12:01 GMT

A boy stands on top of a sea wall near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati on May 26, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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Work on changing international refugee laws is needed as efforts to curb climate change fail

With the onset of sea level rise and increase in extreme weather events, entire island nations face extermination. Islands in the Pacific Ocean are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and are some of the first countries being forced to migrate from their homeland.

At the closing of the UN climate negotiations today, these small island states are negotiating for their very survival as they are forcibly being driven from their homes as a result of climate change.

Kiribati, a low-lying South Pacific country, is using the UN climate negotiations as a platform to bring light to these climate-induced forced migrants. Recently, the Kiribati government has suggested relocating the entire island’s population of 100,000.

The process of relocation has already begun. Earlier this year, Kiribati President Anote Tong confirmed plans to buy 6,000 acres of land in Fiji to ensure food security for his people. Kiribati’s food production has been hard-hit by the sea level rise, with saline water intruding on the fertile soil of the island.

Last month, Ione Teitiota from Kiribati sought asylum for his family in New Zealand, asking that country’s High Court to allow him to claim climate change refugee status. The verdict is pending, as no international law currently exists to address the rights of climate change refugees.

According to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee has historically been defined as a person whose “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” has made him or her “unable” or “unwilling” to seek protection in the home country.  

Written in 1951, the document primarily addressed migrants from war and persecution. The idea of displaced peoples due to global warming did not exist.

The term “refugee” implies something temporary. Island states like Kiribati are not dealing with people who seek sanctuary elsewhere because of the political, social, or economic situation in their homeland. These are people who have been permanently displaced due to climate change – circumstances neither they nor their governments created. They do not have the ability or choice of returning one day to their homeland, as it will be submerged underwater.

Many ambiguities and problems remain with addressing the rights of these people: When does an island nation decide to move? And if so, where? When a country moves to a new land, does it still exist in law? Although these issues are being included in discussions about a “loss and damage” mechanism within the UN climate negotiations, how do governments and policy makers quantify the loss of an entire homeland?

Ambassador Ronald Jumeau, who represents the Seychelles at the United Nations and who is chief negotiator of the Small Island Developing States, is addressing these questions. He points out questions about how “host” countries take these immigrants in, and how sea level rise even in their own countries could make less land available for newcomers.

“How does the Seychelles start a discussion, if we don’t know where we’re going in the first place? At what time do we decide to move?” he asks.

“We haven’t prepared for it,” he says. People in his country “are very much aware, but this is the last thing you want to talk about.”

There is a very real potential of entire societies disappearing. A conversation to respond to this crisis needs to start within the United Nations, incorporating impacted peoples, elected leaders of island communities and states, and human rights groups and academia in the process. And it needs to start immediately.

A loss and damage mechanism established by the U.N. to provide compensation for climate impacts should be a critical step. However, additional steps must be taken to update the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and related legal frameworks and support systems. Some nations are beyond the point of loss – they are facing extinction.

Olivia Santiago is a researcher with Brown University's Climate and Development Lab.

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