As Waters Rise, a Race to Migrate with Dignity

Kiribati, a small cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean, may be completely submerged in water in just a few decades. Residents are already seeing profound effects of climate change in their day-to-day lives, from acidification of the ocean, extreme weather and changes in rainfall patterns, to increasingly poor food security and a contaminated water supply. Secondary effects of these changes include densely crowded urban areas, and health problems caused by poor sanitation as more and more people move away from the disappearing coastline. But amidst the panic of the inevitable, Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, has a plan.

Under Tong’s program Migration with Dignity, the government of Kiribati will focus on education and vocational training in order to provide people with the skills and opportunities to migrate and work abroad. Migration with Dignity is based upon the idea that through the acquisition of new skills, I-Kiribati (a term used to refer to the people of Kiribati) migrants will be able to enter the competitive global marketplace and become eligible for certain visa categories as assets to potential receiving countries. With improvements to the education system and focus on language learning and job-skills training, the program’s goal is for the people of Kiribati to migrate willingly over the long-term. Leaving home isn’t the desire of most I-Kiribati – a 2011 survey showed that a majority would prefer to stay – but because they eventually will not have a choice, Tong’s program aims to create migrants before they become displaced peoples.

Rising sea levels haven’t yet led to mass evacuation of the I-Kiribati, and yet the government has already engaged in large-scale efforts to find pathways to migration for its people. I-Kiribati are working and studying in countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, and Cuba[1]. A Maritime Training College in Kiribati prepares people to work on ships in various capacities. For now, this migration provides a flow of remittances back to Kiribati that play an important part in supplementing the country’s weak economy, but in the future there may be no more home country to which remittances can be sent.

South Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Richard Markham ©  Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

South Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Richard Markham © Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Many have questioned whether the “great climate change migration” has already begun. It’s difficult to measure the magnitude of this phenomenon, in part because climate change usually isn’t the sole driver of migration for those leaving their homelands. The primary and secondary impacts of climate change are so intimately tied up with poverty, health problems, and underdevelopment that individuals seldom explain their reasons for leaving in such simple terms as a changing environment. But island countries like Kiribati are faced with heightened effects of climate change that are irreparable. Time will be the only factor in determining whether climate change alone, or a mixture of factors, drive people away, because eventually the sea will rise. For Kiribati and the many island countries that may be completely lost to climate change, there is no choice but to make migration a central part of planning for the future.

In recent years, meetings of heads of state of countries bearing the brunt of climate change-related disasters have often included the development and discussion of “national adaptation plans,” or NAPs. NAPs contain plans for adaptation to ensure that people are able to “remain in their original settlements for as long as possible in a manner fully consistent with their rights.” For some countries, this includes strategies for migration, such as training and visa programs, which along with other tactics can “[build] resilience to climate change and [lead] to positive development impacts.” For others like Kiribati who may be more urgently at risk of losing an entire country, adaptation plans are extremely expensive and impractical. Their plans center not around whether migration will be necessary, but how and when it will occur.

A report prepared for the recent COP 20 by the Advisory Group for Human Mobility and Climate Change (including IOM, UNHCR, ILO, and others) for specifies three types of movement that can be spurred by climate change: displacement (“situations where people are forced to leave their homes”), migration (mostly voluntary movements), and “planned relocation,” which is defined as “an organized relocation, ordinarily instigated, supervised and carried out by the state with the consent or upon the request of the community.” Planned relocation is emphasized by UNHCR, Brookings, and Georgetown University as a last resort and one that must only be undertaken after immense evaluation and sensitivity to ensure that those impacted are enabled to participate in planning processes. Planned relocation is generally expected to occur within national boundaries (such as from a drought-stricken region, to a part of the country that is more inhabitable) which makes it not necessarily feasible for countries that lack diversity or for whom the entire country is at great risk. However, as Brookings suggests, in rare cases planned relocation to other states might also occur.

Naturally, most countries planning for the inevitable mobility in their future don’t choose one strategy or the other. Most are attempting to devise a compilation of short- and long-term strategies that will allow them to find the best fit for their situation. President Tong received attention in 2014 for purchasing 8 square miles of land in Fiji, and Fiji’s president has made announcements that the country will welcome its neighbors “in a worst-case scenario.” Despite speculation that he might be contemplating mass relocation, Tong continually touts his Migration with Dignity program as “crucial” to the country’s response to climate change. Relocation of an entire country would be incredibly cumbersome, and without an immense amount of planning and resources, could easily move from planned relocation to a disorganized situation in which human rights are at risk.

Forced displacement due to climate change is defined as a worst-case scenario, made worse by the fact that the displaced are typically those who lack the resources or opportunities to migrate of their own volition. In order to address such populations, legal scholars, human rights groups, and international bodies have engaged in debate over the prospect of granting refugee status for ‘climate change refugees.’ However, the likelihood of any changes to international laws on this issue is low for the near future. Industrial powers like the U.S. and Australia, who have contributed greatly to rapid climate change, have demonstrated reluctance to admitting the fault of their ways or taking actions to decrease greenhouse gas emissions when faced quite directly with the testimonies of leaders from countries such as Kiribati, Bangladesh, and the Marshall Islands. This inaction makes it difficult to imagine such countries welcoming an influx of climate change refugees if ‘climate change refugees’ were offered legal recognition. Given these conditions, Tong has strongly asserted that he doesn’t support the idea of ‘climate change refugees’, implying that if Migration with Dignity is a true success, the people of Kiribati won’t have to consider seeking such status. Tong’s program attempts to prevent displacement, and even the need for planned relocation, by providing the people of Kiribati with the tools to migrate.

This issue is much bigger than Kiribati, and one program won’t succeed in allowing for migration rather than displacement of an estimated 150 million people by 2050. Prevention of humanitarian crises will require more than the careful planning of individual governments faced with the very real threat of climate change. The international community will eventually have to face the magnitude of a new refugee population rendered completely stateless – not by conflict, but by the disappearance of their homelands beneath the waves. However, plans like President Tong’s have the potential to give countries some say in determining their futures.

Seldom do countries faced with crises such as conflict or environmental disaster have the time or foresight to prepare for future mass migration. If knowing that climate change is happening doesn’t provoke the biggest culprits to clean up their acts, at least it allows for countries like Kiribati to take what little time they have left to find a way to maintain a sense of agency in the face of the inevitable. Migration with Dignity is more than a practical effort to ensure education, integration, and economic viability for I-Kiribatis. At a deeper level, it represents leaders of a seemingly helpless people – vulnerable to climate change that is far out of their control – taking the little power they do have to write their own migration story.


[1] Cuba has developed relations with Kiribati because of their similarities as small, mainly Christian island countries and common membership on both the Alliance of Small Island States and the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Kiribati currently receives aid in the form of medical support and scholarship programs for I-Kiribati medical students to live and study in Cuba.

One comment

  1. Great articleǃǃ


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