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OPINION: Forced migration in the Pacific: A cautionary tale as seas rise

Thursday, 14 October 2021 12:37 GMT

A group of people prepare to board boats for a short hop from a Fijian island to visit relatives on Rabi island, where 1,000 people were forcibly resettled in 1945 after British phosphate mining ruined their homeland. Credit: Alister Doyle

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The forced relocation by Britain of 1,000 Pacific islanders to Fiji after World War Two is suddenly relevant to show how – and how not – to manage migration if rising seas swamp low-lying nations

Alister Doyle is a former Reuters environmental correspondent and the author of “The Great Melt”, to be published by Flint Books on Oct. 21, 2021.

In December 1945, Britain shipped about 1,000 Pacific islanders to a new home in Fiji after colonial mining of phosphates ruined their ancestral land about 2,000 km away.

The forced relocation of the Banabans after World War Two, a rare example of uprooting an entire population, is suddenly relevant because of fears that what the United Nations calls a “code red” crisis of climate change will force migration as sea levels rise.

The islanders were shipped by British colonial authorities from tiny Banaba island, sometimes known as Ocean Island in what is now the Pacific state of Kiribati, south to Fiji’s Rabi island. Years of mining of Banaba for phosphates, used by Britain as a natural crop fertiliser, had stripped vegetation and made the tiny island virtually uninhabitable.

I travelled to Rabi in 2018 to research a book about the impact of melting ice and rising sea levels, “The Great Melt”,  by hearing the experiences of people living on the front lines of thawing ice in places from the Andes in Peru to the Caribbean off Panama, and from the Pacific to the Netherlands.

Rule number one from the Banabans: Know where you’re going.

“The basic thing is that before you move people should have a look … to feel for themselves, to see for themselves, if it is suitable, to their liking, and if the basic amenities are there,” David Christopher, a Rabi leader born to parents from Banaba, told me in an interview.

“That did not happen. What happened was that we were told a different story. It was the end of the war, people were tired, they were sick. They were told: ‘Go to Fiji, there are big houses there, how wonderful’. And they came here and there were no houses.”

British colonial authorities showed the Banabans pictures of Fijian houses in the capital, Suva, not on Rabi. On Rabi they got only tents, that were little use in the cyclone season. Measles, lung disease and diarrhoea were frequent and about 40 settlers died within the first few months.

And the islanders were shocked to be awoken by what they thought were “monsters” the first night. A herd of cows – unknown on Banaba - lumbered through the camp, trampling on the tents. They were also unnerved by the babbling noise of a stream – which sounded like a dangerous torrent to people from drought-prone Banaba.

The islanders were unprepared as well for a shift from a fishing life – Banaba is only 6 sq km, a tenth the size of Rabi - to an island where they now depend on farming of coconuts, kava - a pepper plant used to make a local drink - and other crops such as breadfruit and mangoes.

Islanders who ventured into the jungle inland on Rabi to explore were stung by swarms of hornets, unknown on Banaba.

Another key question for those moving: Can you stay, for instance if a future government turns xenophobic?

After overcoming the shock of the first months, the Banabans had to struggle for jobs, food, fishing rights, citizenship and to preserve their culture and traditions.

They were not always welcome. One author in the Fiji Times and Herald newspaper, fearing that Banabans would take jobs, sniffed in 1946: “If the Fijian people as a whole could be consulted they might say they do not want the Banabans here at all.”

In 1945, both Banaba and Rabi were part of the British empire, meaning it was easier for London simply to decide to move the islanders. Britain bought Rabi for £25,000, part of a share of the Banabans’ royalties from phosphate mining.

Independence in the 1970s for Fiji and Kiribati raised new questions of belonging. Fiji has been generous. Fiji granted citizenship to all Banabans and their descendants in 2005.

There are positive legacies of straddling two nations. Christopher, in his early 70s, has represented the islanders in both the parliaments of Fiji and Kiribati. In an extraordinary dual representation deal, Rabi selects a member to the Kiribati parliament and the islanders also vote in Fijian elections.

Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says his country will do its share to help other islanders as seas rise. Fiji has large, volcanic islands, unlike the low-lying coral atolls that make up most of nations such as Kiribati or Tuvalu and are most at risk from sea level rise.

“We don’t have all the answers. There is more of a psychological thing that, at the end of the day, you won't get abandoned. We can’t see our Pacific islanders go under water,” Sayed-Khaiyum told me.

The UN’s panel of climate scientists says that global sea levels, which have risen about 20 cm (8 inches) since 1900, could rise by a metre (3.2 feet) this century with high greenhouse gas emissions as ice melts from Greenland to Antarctica.

Another issue for those on the move to consider: How to settle disputes if things go wrong?

The Banabans went to court in London in the 1970s to seek more than £20 million in compensation from Britain for ruining their homeland. They alleged that the British had failed to restore vegetation on mined land on Banaba and that they were not paid a fair price.

The Banabans lost, after a case that lasted more than 220 days. Eventually, Britain, Australia and New Zealand offered $10 million Australian dollars to the Banabans, about a third of their claim, on condition they take no more legal action. They reluctantly agreed, in 1981.

Many Pacific islanders understandably dislike talk of migration driven by greenhouse gas emissions that are beyond their control and created by big emitters led by China, the United States, the European Union, India and Russia.

Jane McAdam, a law professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who has studied Rabi, wrote in a report for the United Nations that “resettlement is a fraught and complex undertaking, and rarely considered successful by those who move.”

How to avoid it? The Glasgow summit next month is a chance to get on track for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that can be a step to keep ice locked up, and help islanders keep their homes.