Climate displacement in the Asia-Pacific

The campaign for recognition of climate refugees in the Asia-Pacific – challenges and opportunities presented by Australia

1.         Introduction

The issue of climate change ranks high on the public agenda in the Asia-Pacific region, with public awareness and concern growing particularly rapidly in Australia during the last 5 years. Australians have begun to realise the potential for catastrophic impacts on their water and food supplies, health and lifestyle if predicted climate change scenarios eventuate (Levine 2008).  But while this growing awareness is beginning to translate into an understanding of the need to act to reduce emissions in order to protect Australia’s own economy and environment, there is much less public awareness and acceptance of Australia’s contribution to the problem on a global scale and responsibility to act to assist others adversely affected by climate change.

Australia is located within the Asia-Pacific, home to two regions identified by the IPCC as most vulnerable to climate change impacts, specifically sea level rise (SLR) – small island nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the low-lying delta regions of South and South-East Asia (IPCC 2007).

Australia’s wealth and size, as well as its existing migration, trade and post-colonial ties, make it an obvious regional intake nation for people displaced by climate change impacts, especially those from neighbouring Pacific Islands. An OECD nation and one of 15 countries offering permanent humanitarian resettlement under the 1951 Convention (UNHCR 2007), Australia has the potential to set trends for formal responses to climate refugees across the Asia-Pacific region and globally[1]. Hence, the gap between Australian public opinion and likely expectations of the regional and world community for Australia to act to assist displaced people is a significant challenge for those seeking just and equitable solutions to the climate crisis.

This paper explores the processes, outcomes to date and prospects for success of the campaign for recognition of climate change refugees[2] in the Asia-Pacific, with particular focus on Australia. With the prospect of millions of people being displaced within decades[3], this paper focuses on analysing current political contexts in which Australia’s policy orientation and responses to the needs of climate displaced people in the region will be decided.

The paper starts with a background assessment of the potential dimensions of climate-related migration in the Asia-Pacific, estimating numbers of people who may call for Australia’s assistance to relocate in the near term (ie, between now and 2030).

Next, in section three, the paper explores current efforts within Australia to gain institutional recognition of climate refugees. It discusses the diversity of groups involved, tactics, achievements and challenges, in light of the broader moral and political contexts operating within Australia. These include the limited nature of Australian government responses to climate change and Australia’s immigration policy, especially on asylum seekers.

In section four, the paper outlines potential policy responses to meet the needs of climate displaced peoples in the Asia-Pacific. It concludes that, to achieve a fair and effective government response, the campaign for recognition of climate refugees must build awareness of Australia’s causal role in the problem amongst ordinary Australians, so that it is framed not as a security or even primarily a humanitarian issue, but as a moral issue, requiring an ethical response from Australia.

2.         The dimensions of the problem

Warnings about mass displacements of human populations and the generation of hundreds of millions of climate refugees have been a feature of the climate change discourse since the early 1990s. Since then, several attempts have been made to estimate the likely numbers of displaced people, with the figure of 200 million people worldwide the number most often cited (Myers 2005; Stern 2006; IPCC 2007).

However, Brown (2007: 6) notes that efforts to draw a causative line between climate change and forced migration are complicated by relatively limited empirical analysis of the issue (compared with climate science), as well as the complex relationships between expected physical impacts of climate change and their likely consequences for societies of differing resources and varied capacity to adapt to external shocks.

Consequently, more recent scientific and academic studies are beginning to dispute earlier predictions of large-scale forced migration due to climate change (Piguet 2008; Raleigh et al 2008: 3 & 40), and make a clearer distinction between estimating the numbers of people likely to be severely affected by climate change, versus the numbers likely to respond to those impacts through migration.

2.1      How many people affected by climate change-induced sea level rise in Asia-Pacific?

The Asia-Pacific includes two regions judged in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) to be especially vulnerable to climate change impacts. These are the small islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the heavily populated deltas of South and East Asia located in the countries of Bangladesh, India, China, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam (IPCC 2007; Mimura et al 2007; Cruz et al 2007; Preston et al 2006).

There are long-term estimates that by 2050, 290,000 people within the Pacific region will need re-location in the absence of adequate adaptive or protective measures, or 160,000 people if enhanced adaptation measures are put in place (Beirmann & Boas 2007: 13). Within the vastly more populated South and East Asian deltas, there are estimates that up to 150 million people will be displaced in the event of SLR of 1 metre (Preston et al 2006: 49, citing Nicholls 1995). One near-term estimate is of 50 million environmentally displaced people by 2010, which proportionately, would mean 30 million within the Asia-Pacific (UNU-EHS 2005). However, this estimate includes all environmentally-related displacement, not just climate-related impacts. There is an evident lack of near-term estimates of climate-related displacement. However, there is a lot of information available about climate change impacts across the region.

Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) are already experiencing effects of sea level and sea surface temperature rises (Mimura et al 2007; MCED 2000) and face continued and increased impacts including loss of land to inundation and coastal erosion, salinization of groundwater supplies, damage to protective coral reefs and mangrove wetlands and a likely increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including cyclones and storm surges (Preston et al 2006: 3; Mimura et al 2007: 691-3). Some PICTs have also been affected by the El Nino Southern Oscillation weather pattern which has caused drought due to disrupted rainfall patterns (Mimura et al 2007: 690). Subsistence agriculture has had to change or be abandoned on many of these islands due to increased salinity, and coastal fisheries are threatened by global mass mortality of coral in the event of a 2 degree warming above 1990 levels (Schneider et al 2007: 792).

However, the impacts of climate change are not only physical. For the peoples of small island states, climate change threatens not only their livelihoods, but the very existence of their homelands and the land, forest and sea resources which form the basis of their culture and identity (UN-OHRLLS 2007).

2.2      Response to impacts – adaptation or migration?

There is growing understanding of the complexity of responses to climate impacts, including that migration, especially international migration, might not be a likely response (Piguet 2008; Barnett & Mortreux 2008). Certainly, the emphasis of governments in the most vulnerable small island nations has increasingly been on adaptation through sustainable development activities. The current Pacific Islands Framework for Action on Climate Change for instance, makes no mention of displacement or migration (PIFACC 2005).

Recognising the injustice of the fact that their communities face the obliteration of their homes, culture and livelihoods through a problem they have made negligible contribution to, SIDS have consistently focussed on the need for comprehensive mitigation measures which might provide the opportunity to stay permanently on their islands (PIFS 2007). Recent research about the Tuvaluan situation has supported this stance, questioning the relevance, efficacy and potential harms of focussing on migration as a climate change adaptation strategy (Barnett & Mortreux 2008; Farbotko 2004).

Notwithstanding the clear desire of many Islander peoples to remain on their lands, and the justice of an approach which emphasises concerted mitigation action, the low adaptive capacity of many of the region’s most vulnerable countries will make a certain amount of migration inevitable (UN-OHRLLS 2007:12). For low-lying atoll countries, in particular the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau in the Pacific, SLR, combined with threats to agriculture, fisheries and water supplies, all militate against long-term adaptation potential (Biermann & Boas 2007: 13).

Although internal migration has been a strong demographic feature over the past 50 years in most PICTs (Mimura et al 2007: 708; Campbell et al 2005), it is clearly not an option for most atoll nations as they have no higher hinterland to retreat to; these islands face impacts within decades under current SLR projections that will render life on them impossible to sustain.

2.3      Potential numbers of environmentally displaced peoples looking to Australia for assistance in the near future – an estimate

There are no clear indications of the numbers of climate displaced people who may look to Australia for assistance, especially in the near term. Even in the case of forced relocation, previous and current relocation efforts have in fact not generally looked to Australia as a place of migration. Instead, for instance in Pacific Island nations, efforts have focussed on relocating people within the same nation or to neighbouring nations (Campbell et al 2005; PIFS 2007).

For example, there are current efforts to relocate Carteret Islanders from their atoll islands of origin where accelerated sinking and SLR have already submerged villages and where increased salinity makes cultivation of the traditional food, swamp taro, impossible. Far from relying on expectations of international migration or even government-sponsored internal resettlement, the Carteret Islanders have negotiated their own relocation to former plantation lands on Bougainville’s mainland, owned by the Catholic Church (Rakova 2008). There are other examples where families and communities have been resettled through arrangements negotiated between PICT governments and citizens, such as the 1996 relocation of families from Tuvalu to Niue (SPC 2001).

Such precedents are among a number of factors to be considered when estimating potential numbers of climate-affected peoples likely to seek Australia’s assistance. One obvious factor, usually overlooked in regional estimates of displaced peoples, is that there are existing migration options to OECD nations on the Pacific rim for some Pacific Islanders (Ware 2005). Another is the existence of shared ties between source and destination countries; a recent study which found a correlation between inter-country migration and environmental factors also found that migration patterns are affected by social factors, such as previous migration paths, shared language and cultural traditions (Afifi and Warner 2008).

In the case of the South and South East Asian delta regions, their massive populations and existing migration and aid ties to Australia mean they are likely eventual sources of climate-related forced migration, via the Indonesian archipelago. However, these regions are not in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood in the same way as the islands of Oceania, and climate-displaced people in South and South East Asia are likely to move to high hinterland or cross land borders into neighbouring countries before crossing oceans (Dupont and Pearman 2006). The most likely source of climate refugees for Australia is, in the near and medium term, the small island nations of the Pacific.

A SLR of 1m would seriously compromise the viability of low-lying islands in the Pacific, including parts of Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu; the Cook Islands (north); four atoll island groups in Papua New Guinea; Kiribati; the Marshall Islands; the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM); Palau; Tokelau; Tuvalu; and some Australian islands within the Torres Strait (Mimura et al 2007; Preston et al 2006; Green 2006; Bamett & Adger 2003; Burns 2000). However, not all of these islands will produce climate refugees, particularly in the near to medium term, and not all climate refugees will look to Australia as a place to settle.

Existing migration rights for residents of some of these PICTs mean they will not need to rely on humanitarian gestures from their own or international communities as their only option for relocation. The Cook Islands, self governing in free association with New Zealand, and Tokelau, a self-administering territory, have full access to NZ (Ware 2005; CIA). The Marshall Islands, Palau and FSM, as republics and a constitutional government in free association with the USA, have full access to the USA (Ware 2005; CIA). The larger size of some island states, for instance, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, means internal relocation may be possible: recent traditions support this (Campbell et al 2005; PIFS 2007).

From the list of climate change affected island states above, this leaves four PICTs: Kiribati (population 110,356), Samoa (pop 217,083), Tonga (pop 119,009) and Tuvalu (pop 12,177)[4]. Of these, Samoa and Tonga have larger land masses and higher topographies. Tonga, unlike the other three, is not categorised as a Least Developed Country, and will have better adaptive capacities (UN-OHRLLS 2007). All four countries have existing migration ties to NZ, including allocated annual quotas under the Pacific Access Category (PAC). And importantly, only Tuvalu and Kiribati have made direct requests to Australia seeking immigration rights (Baker 2007; SMH/AAP 2008). Both Tuvalu and Kiribati are particularly vulnerable to SLR (Barnett & Adger 2003: 324) and events such as the 2007 summer melting of the Arctic ice sheet 100 years ahead of projections mean that the mass relocation of their citizens may have to occur in the near future (Spratt & Sutton 2008). The combined population of these two nations is 122,533, but not all residents will seek migration to Australia; existing migration patterns indicate that many will seek to move to NZ. However, the impact of this for Australia is offset by the likelihood that other vulnerable PICTs will produce people looking to Australia for resettlement due to climate-related displacement in the near future.

In the absence of empirical data, and relying on current IPCC projections of SLR and other climate change impacts, a round figure can be reasonably extrapolated from the preceding discussion: between now and 2030, perhaps up to 100,000 climate-displaced people will seek Australia’s immigration assistance.

The question then, is how Australia will respond to these early regional migration flows.

3.         Climate refugee recognition – the view from Australia

Any exploration of Australia’s potential response to climate-related displacement and migration in the Asia-Pacific must have regard to two interrelated contexts: the moral context, arising from Australia’s high carbon emissions and state responsibility for driving the cause of displacement; and the political context, within which Australia’s policy orientation to the issue is determined. The challenge facing the movement for recognition of climate refugees, one which will ultimately determine its success, is the ability to promote awareness of the moral context and acceptance of Australia’s ethical obligations and to manage the risks and opportunities of the political context.

To see how the constituent parts of the movement have addressed these contexts, through their various organisational, strategic orientations and messages, the paper first provides a brief outline of the movement’s key actors and their achievements to date. It then goes on to examine the contexts in more detail and their meaning for the campaign for recognition of climate refugees.

3.1  The campaigners – Key actors, interests and achievements

It is not surprising, given the position of the climate refugee issue at the intersection of human rights, environmentalism and development policy, that organisations campaigning on it reflect this diversity of interests. In the past year, growing concern about climate change amongst the Australian public has increased the diversity and number of people and community groups seeking to engage with the issue (Walker 2008). This growth in the movement has coincided with moves to formalise its structure. FOE Australia’s long-standing Climate Justice campaign, which has focussed on climate refugees since its 2001 inception, has initiated an Alliance for Climate Affected Peoples (to be launched in August 2008), intended as a peak body for the movement within Australia (Brindal 2008).

Over the course of the campaign, environment, aid/development and human rights bodies have advocated a range of responses, including targeted funding over and above Australia’s existing foreign aid commitments and calls to review Australia’s immigration program to allow asylum for climate displaced peoples (CCDR 2006; FOEA 2007). These policy-oriented groups have focussed their lobbying efforts on the Australian Labor Party whilst it was in opposition and now in government (Brindal 2008). Some, including FOEA, Oxfam, AidWatch and ACF, have extended their activities to raising public awareness through organising speaking tours featuring leaders from affected communities, print media advertising[5] and distributing public information on the issue. Others focus on directly assisting climate-affected peoples in the region through fundraising and community development projects (McRae 2008)[6].

Undoubtedly the key policy achievement to date has been the successful work of Labor for Refugees, a national grouping within the ALP, to get formal recognition of climate refugees and commitments to comprehensive resettlement programs included in the party’s National Platform months prior to it gaining power in the 2007 federal election (Mookhey 2008; ALP 2007)[7]. The categorical recognition of the problem of climate refugees in ruling party policy is a huge tactical advantage for the movement, but unfortunately these ALP policy commitments have not been implemented by the Rudd Labor government. Twin challenges for the campaign over the next year are to work towards getting this policy implemented and to prevent slippage in the position, since the ALP’s biennial National Conference convenes next year and there is a risk of amendment.

The movement has focussed to date on gaining recognition of climate refugees as a problem rather than on formulating detailed policy or program responses. However, it has delineated clear bottom lines in terms of equity, reparation and human rights (Star 2004). For instance, it has been unanimous in demands that Australia’s existing aid commitments not be redirected to climate change adaptation and mitigation funding within the region; that additional funds are required (Duxfield 2007; FOEA 2007; Oxfam 2007; CCDR 2007). And it has been adamant that Australia’s existing humanitarian immigration quotas should not be allocated to climate-related refugees; that an additional category is required (FOEA 2007).

A key challenge for the climate refugee movement is reaching out to broader public opinion and fostering awareness of the issues, as further explored in section 3.3. Promotion of messages is a question of strategy and tactics, but also of resources, including finding adequate funds to reach a public which gains most of its climate change information from television (AGO 2003: 6-7). Another prominent challenge is managing the diversity of concerns, interests and orientations that involved organisations bring with them to the movement (Walker 2008). This includes agreeing on broader campaign goals, tactics and terminology, especially around use of the term ‘climate refugee’[8].

There is also the challenge of agenda-setting, in particular the inherent tension between the need to get the issue on the public agenda, via media messages emphasising the vulnerability and plight of island nations and their citizens (Farbotko 2004), versus the expressed desire of these peoples for planned migration opportunities and, preferably, comprehensive mitigation measures that might provide the opportunity to stay permanently on their islands (SMH/AAP 2008; Puapua 2002).

3.2      The moral context of the campaign

In Australia’s case, the moral context of the climate refugee issue is stark. Australia ranks amongst the world’s top ten highest per capita GHG emitters (UNDP 2008: 69). On a gross national per capita income measure, Australia is the wealthiest nation in the Asia-Pacific region after Japan (World Bank 2008). It is also the world’s largest exporter of coal (World Coal Institute 2007). Over the period from 1990 to 2004, Australia’s overall GHG emissions grew by 25% (UNFCCC 2006) and, in the absence of successful mitigation efforts, are projected to rise by up to 60% by 2050 (Christoff 2008: 93). This is at a time when the leaders of neighbouring PICTs were unanimously requesting that Australia take climate change mitigation action by capping emissions and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol (PIFS 2007) and when the PICTs, with negligible combined and per capita carbon emissions, measuring 0.03 % of global totals (Hay 1999), were taking action to further reduce their own contributions to global GHG emissions (PIFACC 2005: 7-8). Finally, there is the additional issue of Australia’s historical liability for carbon emissions (Preston et al 2006: 57).

The moral context has always been prioritised by PICTs’ leaders in their dealings with media and in international fora (MCED 2000; Ielemia 2007; Scotty 2007). This is mirrored in the shared emphasis of NGOs and the climate refugee movement as a whole on the need for mitigation; on the particular vulnerability of developing nations with marginal contribution to GHG concentrations; and on the need for responses to ensure equity, reparation and human rights (Star 2004: 5-7). Regional island nations, through their membership of the Alliance of Small Island States, had early success in placing the vulnerability of SIDS and the responsibility of developed nations at the fore of international agreements (Shibuya 1996). But this success has not translated into practical mitigation achievements in reducing GHG emissions: in fact, the reverse.

Within Australia and the wider Pacific region, FOEA and other groups have been largely successful in placing the moral context on the broader climate change and environmental movements’ agendas. AidWatch and Oxfam, for instance, have stressed the need for climate change adaptation and mitigation funding to be above and beyond existing aid and development commitments and for these to remain tied to meeting Millennium Development Goals (Duxfield 2007; Oxfam 2007). FOEA has achieved practical gains in getting this development perspective into information produced by political parties (the Greens and the ALP) and climate change roundtables (Walker 2008). The federal parliamentary presence of the Greens and the Australian Democrats has also meant the moral context is included in parliamentary debates about regional climate change impacts. For instance, former Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett has advocated that on a proportional basis, if Australia contributed 1–2% of global historical GHG, this equates to direct responsibility for 1.2–2.4 million climate-displaced people (Bartlett 2002). In terms of agenda-setting within the broader climate change movement, these are important gains, but again, they have not translated into success in getting equity considerations implemented in government policy.

3.3      The political context – Australia’s policy orientation, immigration and public opinion

A range of factors will frame Australia’s institutional response to climate-related migration. This paper’s length does not allow for discussion of the coal industry’s role in derailing Australia’s early multilateral leadership on climate change and its influence in excluding equity, liability and even environmental considerations from Australia’s climate change response (Hamilton 2007; McDonald 2005). Nor is there room for analysis of how Australia’s national interests in the region, including self-perception as a good neighbour and increased willingness to intervene in regional security (ASPI 2008; Dupont and Pearman 2006) will mitigate a third, powerful national interest: that there is no gain for Australia in acknowledging, let alone accepting liability for, climate-related displacement.

Instead, this discussion will focus on a political and public policy issue of direct relevance to climate refugees: Australia’s immigration policy regime and the role of public opinion, and government responses to it, in shaping Australian immigration policy. In a democracy, public opinion can sway government policy approaches. At the same time, it is vulnerable to the influence of politicians and media personalities with strongly held prejudices[9]. And of vital importance are the insular nature of the Australian public debate on climate change and the threat of increasingly insular responses as climate change continues to impact on Australia.

Australia’s immigration policy regime has been characterised as the most draconian and control-oriented of any western democracy, especially in its treatment of onshore, spontaneous asylum seekers (Jupp 2002: 67). In the absence of agreed and planned migration schemes, this is exactly the category within which many climate displaced people within the region might fall; in either policy eventuality, Australia’s approach to immigration is an absolutely crucial political context challenge for the climate refugee movement.

Two factors need to be considered. The first is the reality of government policy on spontaneous arrivals of asylum seekers on Australian shores: the government terminology is unauthorised asylum seekers and the previous government typically used the term ‘illegal’ (Ruddock 2001). This policy regime is problematic for the prospect of achieving responses which protect even the most basic human rights of climate refugees, for instance to freedom from detention and torture, let alone responses which might meet concerns about equity (HREOC 2004; Briskman et al 2008). In fact, Australia’s so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, where unauthorised onshore asylum seekers were relayed to detention centres located in Nauru and PNG, conjured up the bizarre prospect of regional climate refugees being detained in the very places they need to flee. Although the Pacific Solution has been dismantled by the Rudd Labor government, very little else has changed in regards to Australia’s treatment of onshore asylum seekers (Kevin 2008; AJA 2008). Detention centres are still in use and the excision from Australia’s migration zone of outlying Indian Ocean islands remains in force.

Second, there is the related prospect of a public backlash against immigration, especially humanitarian intakes, and the consequent risk of this translating into harsher government policy responses. One argument used against continued emphasis on forced migration as a likely consequence of climate change is the unintended impacts this can have on public policy in potential receiving nations (Piguet 2008: 3; Kliot 2004: 69), including the capacity for alarmism about refugee flows to feed into a ‘securitisation’ of the issue. That this doesn’t yet appear to be impacting on the wider Australian debate about climate change could be because climate-related displacement itself is still largely invisible as an issue. However, there are signs this is changing: warnings about the impacts of climate displacement and forced migration on regional security have become more common. Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, for example, has identified climate change as the 21st century’s major security issue and predicts ‘policing implications’ arising from mass displacement and flows of ‘millions’ of people across the region’s oceans (Keelty 2007).

The movement therefore has to weigh up the need to attract media and public sympathy by emphasising the plight of climate-displaced people against the risks of public opinion and policy backlashes (Walker 2008). Labor for Refugees explicitly considered this risk when advocating with ALP parliamentary leaders to respond proactively, in order to place Australia’s regional obligations firmly on the agenda and not be ‘wedged’ on the issue when boats of climate affected peoples arrive on Australia’s shores seeking asylum. In the view of Labor for Refugees, the issue is ‘eminently campaignable’ if Labor acts early in adopting a strong, ethical stance (Mookhey 2008).

Arguments against using ‘refugee’ rhetoric also ignore the fact that this is probably the campaign’s best opportunity to build a large-scale social movement in support of climate displaced people within Australia. There is an existing broad-based refugee movement within the country, which grew out of citizens’ outrage and disgust with Australian government policy and which has engaged a huge diversity of individuals and groups in actively challenging government policy (Gosden 2006). At a time when the federal government was committed to presenting asylum seekers as illegal queue jumpers who constituted a grave threat to national security (see Ruddock 2003), mass public sentiment was mobilised in favour of refugees. The resultant committed, organised and Australia-wide social movement could potentially be activated to effectively assist and advocate for climate-displaced people across the Asia-Pacific.

Against the fear of a backlash can also be weighed Australia’s humanitarian traditions. Australia is a major country of humanitarian resettlement, with some 700,000 former refugees in a population of 21 million (RCOA 2007). Previous mass humanitarian migration intakes – for instance, after the Vietnam War – were successfully accomplished and now enjoy broad popular support (Jupp 2002)[10].

However, drawing on public sympathy rather than a deeper understanding of Australia’s moral obligations could be problematic for the movement – it tends to work against planned, anticipatory action and towards crisis responses. This emphasis is apparent in the language of ALP policy on climate refugees, for instance, in its use of the term ‘evacuation’ (ALP 2007). It is important to note in this context the continuing sentiment against identifying as refugees amongst some Pacific Island communities, which consistently stress the need for long-term, planned resettlement options (SMH/AAP 2008).

Finally, it has been noted that the climate change debate within Australia is particularly insular (Walker 2008; Brindal 2008). It is principally focussed on economic issues rather than human rights and social equity, and particularly not international or regional human rights and equity (Walker 2008). Reactions to deepening climate change impacts do not augur well for a less insular outlook. Climate-related economic downturn and the advent of so-called Peak Oil, or the end of cheap energy, pose an additional problem; Australia’s (and in fact the world’s) capacity to implement adaptation strategies and to respond to disasters may become increasingly compromised as oil supplies become progressively more expensive and scarce.

The insularity of Australia’s outlook has also been noted in regard to lack of understanding of refugee experience, apparent in the responses of the public and politicians – arising from the ‘sheltered’ nature of life for most Australians (Jupp 2002 181). However, life has already become tougher for many Australians under climate change. The south-eastern states, where the bulk of Australia’s population is located, are suffering a long-term drought, increasingly regarded as a permanent symptom of climate change (Australian 2008). The campaign for recognition of climate refugees needs to tie this understanding to an appreciation of regional impacts; that what is happening in Australia, is happening to others who are less able to adapt. The challenge is to attract public attention, awareness and understanding of Australia’s role in causing the problem; these are first steps to an equitable response by Australia.

The ‘framing’ of the climate refugee phenomenon will occur within the dominant ideological paradigms of Australia’s discourse on climate change and will determine Australia’s policy response (Howlett & Ramesh 1995). Given the prevailing political context, the most likely ways in which the climate refugee issue will be constructed is as a humanitarian problem requiring a crisis response by Australia, if and when disasters occur. Another potential policy risk is that climate-related refugee flows are defined as a security problem for the region and Australia. If the movement for recognition of climate refugees can succeed in framing climate displacement as a moral challenge for Australia, which Australia, amongst all the regional players, has had the major role in creating; this will ensure a fair and effective response.

4.         Conclusion

Proposals for Australian responses to climate-related migration in the Asia-Pacific are various and include ideas like the wish of some Tuvaluans to purchase an uninhabited island off Australia’s north-east coast (Teponga 2008). There are two broader avenues for response proposed by campaign organisations, and a third which the author suggests as an avenue to achieving equity and meeting some of the expressed needs of PICTs.

The first option is for Australia to participate in developing an international protocol. A recent study of global governance options for protection of climate displaced people recommends the creation of a sui generis protocol on climate refugees, to be linked to the current UN climate change framework (Biermann and Boas 2007). A multilateral coalition to protect climate refugees features in ALP policy and is outlined in greater detail in the discussion paper Our Drowning Neighbours (Sercombe and Albanese 2006). This commitment, combined with Australia’s humanitarian resettlement traditions, may provide the impetus for the Rudd government to participate in such a protocol, but feedback from recent ministerial lobbying indicates it is unlikely to initiate such an instrument (Brindal 2008).

The second option is to pursue a unilateral change to Australia’s Migration Act to allow a category for climate refugees. This was attempted by the Australian Greens last year, in its Migration (Climate Refugees) Amendment Bill 2007 which sought to create a new visa class to formally recognise climate refugees and to grant the Minister for Immigration the power to declare certain environmental disasters a result of climate change (Australian Greens 2007). This initiative failed to gain backing from the major parties. Both ALP and then conservative government responses premised their arguments that consideration of forced migration was no longer necessary on PICTs’ focus on adaptation measures (disregarding requests for Australian immigration assistance by Tuvalu and Kiribati concurrent with the debate) (Baker 2007), indicating that unilateral initiatives are unlikely to succeed in the near future (Commonwealth of Australia 2007). However, labour migration schemes (like New Zealand’s PAC) are likely to eventuate in the near future; this may meet the needs of some climate affected people in the region, especially through the generation of remittance flows (Ware 2005), but in Australia there is no current prospect of permanent residence arising from such schemes.

The third option is based on bilateralism and the precedent set by Australia and New Zealand, which enjoy shared migration rights of free access and permanent residence, dating back to the 1920s. Under the 1973 Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, citizens of either country may enter, visit, live and work in the other without needing prior authority (DIAC 2007). The fact that Oceania’s two wealthiest nations enjoy bilateral freedom of migration and permanent residency at a time when others face the prospect of forced migration with extremely limited options raises obvious questions of equity. In the case of New Zealand, migration rights have been extended to a number of PICTs, all with past colonial ties to New Zealand. The extension of bilateral arrangements by Australia to regional SIDS without existing migration rights to other OECD Pacific rim nations would be an equitable and effective response to climate change induced migration.

This option, if its implementation ensures free access and permanent residence, meets important needs of climate displaced people, raised in the literature and by SIDS themselves. It provides early opportunity for planned relocation and resettlement and permanent resettlement rather than temporary asylum (Biermann and Boas 2007). It would provide autonomy and freedom of travel between PICTs and Australia, ameliorating the disempowering uncertainty facing atoll nations (Sopoanga 2003) and allowing for maintenance of family and cultural ties. Crucially, if there is political will for implementation, bilateral agreements are able to be implemented much more quickly than global, multilateral initiatives. Most importantly, in its realisation of autonomy of movement (until island homes become submerged) and provision of planned, proactive adaptation in the form of migration, bilateral freedom of access provides an equitable response to SIDS, who have stressed as their first priority the need for urgent action to mitigate climate change; a priority Australia has ignored.

Any move towards adoption of one of these options still seems a long way off. The current political and policy context, featuring insularity and lack of understanding, let alone acceptance, of Australia’s obligations, indicates that Australia will most likely not intervene to provide early, planned migration opportunities. Until climate displacement is framed as a moral issue, requiring ethical redress by Australia, the default response of crisis intervention will prevail: Australia will assist in the event of disaster (and will pride itself on its humanitarianism). And, in the event that climate refugee flows are numerically large and/or defined as a security problem, the Australian response to protect regional security is more likely to be along the lines of border protection than provision of migration rights. The realisation of fairer responses, which address the needs of climate affected peoples as well as Australia’s ethical obligations, will require a major shift in public awareness. This is the challenge facing the climate refugee recognition movement in Australia. If it succeeds in this, it will play an important role in promoting global equity and ethics in wealthy nation responses to climate change.


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List of acronyms and abbreviations

ACF                     Australian Conservation Foundation

AGO                     Australian Greenhouse Office

AJA                      A Just Australia

ALP                      Australian Labor Party

APSI                    Australian Strategic Policy Institute

AOSIS                  Alliance of Small Island States

CCDR                  Climate Change and Development Roundtable (Australia)

CIA                      Central Intelligence Agency (United States of America)

CSIRO                 Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (Australia).

DIAC                     Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

FOEA                    Friends of the Earth Australia.

IPCC                     Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

HREOC                 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Australia).

MCED                   Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific.

OECD                   Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

PIFACC                 Pacific Islands Framework for Action on Climate Change.

PIFS                     Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

RCOA                   Refugee Council of Australia.

SIDS                     Small Island Developing States.

SPC                     Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

UNDP                   United Nations Development Programme.

UNEP                    United Nations Environment Programme.

UNFCCC               United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

UNESCAP             United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

UNHCR                 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

UN-OHRLLS         Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countried, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

UNU-EHS              United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security.







[1] This point relates to expectations, regional and global, that may arise from Australia’s humanitarian resettlement traditions and is not advocating inclusion of climate displaced people in intakes relating to the 1951 Convention.

[2] Despite continuing concerns with the term environment or climate refugee (see inter alia Piguet 2008; Barnett & Adger 2003; Black 2001), this paper uses it, in appreciation of arguments that it best conveys the forced nature and ‘state-led causation’ of displacement facing climate affected peoples (see Biermann and Boas 2007: 18,20).

[3] Current IPCC projections include the prospect of heavily populated, low-lying regions of South and South East Asia being inundated, and the consequent displacement of millions of people, within a timeframe of decades (See Piguet 2008: 7-8, quoting IPCC scenario A1B: SLR of 0.3 – 0.8 metres by 2030).

[4] All population figures are estimates at July 2008 (CIA 2008).

[5] Oxfam Australia produced a recent newspaper advertisement contrasting pictures of a manicured backyard with climate change induced devastation in the majority world under the caption ‘Get Out of Your Backyard’.

[6] The Pacific Blak Box Youth Forum, held in April this year in Bougainville, PNG trained young people due to relocate from the Carteret Islands and young people from the receiving Bougainville mainland community of Tinputz in digital documentary-making, and engaging their communities in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies (McRae 2008).

[7] Commitments include that ‘Australia should play a key leadership role in supporting migration and evacuation efforts’ and ‘establishing an international coalition to accept climate change refugees when a country becomes uninhabitable because of rising sea levels, damage to … infrastructure or reduced food security and water supplies’ (ALP 2007: 241-242).

[8] The Australian debate on terminology mirrors that internationally (see Biermann & Boas 2007), with some refugee advocacy groups concerned about the implications of extending the term refugee beyond the 1951 Convention which limits refugee status to people who can prove personal experience of institutional persecution (Samson 2008).

[9] There has been much analysis about the role of ‘wedge politics’, the exploitation for electoral advantage of underlying social resentments and prejudices (in this case, against asylum seekers of predominantly Middle Eastern background) in the 2001 election victory of the conservative Howard government (Hewson 2001; Jupp 2002: 196-199).


[10] Some historical analysis presents a different picture of Australia’s humanitarian traditions; that they have usually been in the national interest, either economically (as in the case of mass resettlement post World War II when labour migration needs could not be met through British migration intakes (Neumann 2004: 105-113)) or politically (as in the resettlement of refugees after the Communist victory in Vietnam (Manne 2008)).


One thought on “Climate displacement in the Asia-Pacific

  1. Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

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