Kiribati – Facing what may be inevitable

Many I-Kiribati (as the people of Kiribati are known) recognize that despite both their desire to stay on their sacred land and their efforts to minimize the impact of climate change on their community, relocation to another country may be inevitable.

The Kiribati government is in discussions with its neighbors to ensure that any future relocation would allow the I-Kiribati to maintain their culture and traditions, and that their human rights would be protected. The country’s president, Anote Tong, often describes such relocations as “migration with dignity.”

President Tong’s migration strategy has two complementary components. The first involves creating new migration opportunities for I-Kiribati who wish to relocate now. The second involves long-term initiatives that will raise the skill levels of the population. It is hoped that the latter will make I-Kiribati more attractive as migrants to neighboring countries (such as Australia and New Zealand), while simultaneously improving local services.

The Australia-Kiribati Partnership for Development, signed in January 2009, is one important skill-building initiative. Two of its primary goals are improving basic education and developing workforce skills in growing domestic and international industries. But with only one third of I-Kiribati completing secondary school, it’s clear that these socio-economic changes will not happen overnight.

Even those I-Kiribati with skills have limited opportunities for migration. One of the largest migration programs, New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category, grants only 75 visas annually to I-Kiribati between the ages of 18 and 45. But to be eligible for these visas, an applicant must have an acceptable offer of employment, which limits the potential recipients to skilled, younger I-Kiribati and their families. That is no solution for a country that is fast becoming inhabitable.

And at present, there is no form of protection for those fleeing climate change impacts across international borders. The 1951 Refugee Convention restricts refugee status to any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

But various groups are working to establish alternative forms of protection for those displaced by the effects of climate change. In April, the Refugee Council of Australia advised the Australian government that it should create a new migration category for those fleeing the effects of climate change. And with the support of the Norwegian and Swiss governments, a new initiative named in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, The Nansen Initiative has been launched in an effort to build consensus among countries on how best to deal with people displaced across international borders by natural disasters, including the effects of climate change. Discussions with Pacific Island states were held from 21-24 May.

But to the extent that these initiatives will take time, and the effects of climate change are unfolding more rapidly than even anticipated, the international community has a moral responsibility to act. Kiribati is, and always has been, one of the world’s lowest carbon emitters, so its own development has had virtually no impact on the forces that threaten its very existence. The U.S. and other major carbon emitters must step up to the plate and immediately take action to significantly curb back emissions, as well as protect those who are most vulnerable to — and least responsible for — climate change’s devastating impacts. New, more-inclusive international or bi-lateral migration agreements must be developed for people who will be forced to move as a result of climate change; arrangements must be made to protect nationality and cultural identity; processes must be put in place to protect the revenues, livelihoods, and economic rights of affected countries and their people including fishing and mineral rights; people who lose land or resources as a result must be compensated; andplanned relocations must be community led and ensure full participation of those affected.  

As explained by Kiribati media producer and climate change advocate Linda Uan, “In our traditional village culture, we all understand that if somebody does a wrong, they have to reciprocate for their unacceptable behaviour towards an individual or the community as a whole. We are therefore left puzzled and challenged by the fact that the continued abuse of the environment by wealthy nations means we are the ones who have to suffer.  Our sense of fair play, of right and wrong, and of justice is being severely tested.” 

Davina Wadley is a former fellow with the Refugees International climate displacement program.