They live on seven small coral islands in the Pacific Ocean with a total land area of just 0.5 square kilometres – and shrinking – about 90 kilometres north of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.
For more than 200 years, the Tuluun people have lived on the atolls known as the Carteret Islands, which at their highest point are just 1.5 metres above sea level, making them vulnerable to even slight sea level rises not of their making.
Sometimes described as the world’s first climate refugees, the Carteret Islanders haven’t been able to access land for sustainable relocation, notwithstanding Papua New Guinea government promises over many years.
Some of those who’ve tried to move have returned to an uncertain future because of conflict with landowning groups in proposed sites for relocation.
The Carteret Islanders aren’t alone. In low-lying areas across the Pacific, climate migrants are moving within, not across, national borders.
While stories such as the Carteret Islands’ are being told, there remains a pressing need for more information on local migration and displacement in order to develop better policies that limit discrimination, poverty and political destabilisation in the Pacific region.
Too much attention is focused on migration beyond national borders, even though most Pacific islanders are moving within nations, through kinship networks or to informal urban settlements, without government support.
Current patterns of Pacific climate migration call into question the role of national governments as intermediaries for policy action, even though the national governments are central to international regimes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Take another part of Papua New Guinea, for instance.
On a part of its northern coast, the Murik people live on narrow beaches, along the Sepik River, that divide the mangrove lagoons called the Murik Lakes.
This area is under threat from rising sea levels, and so the national government established the Murik Lakes Resettlement Project that sought to relocate inhabitants from the villages of Big Murik, Darapap and Karau.
However, the project never eventuated due to funding constraints, government dysfunction and fears of conflict with landowning groups, which claimed the proposed resettlement sites.
Or, in another example, in the Solomon Islands.
Inhabitants of the isolated atolls of Ontong Java developed proposals for relocation as far back as 2011, but haven’t received any government support, notwithstanding a succession of promises, plans and assessments. Many of those who have moved now reside in an informal settlement in Honiara, which is overcrowded and resistant to further inflows of migrants.
In Fiji, it’s true, there have been well-publicised cases of government-supported relocation – including Narikoso village on the outer island of Ono, Vunidogoloa village on the island of Vanua Levu, and Denimanu village on the island of Yadua.
Nevertheless, because these cases involve localised movements within the territory of the customary landowning group, they were facilitated more by kinship networks than government support.
Looking for a state
James Scott, a renowned political scientist and anthropologist at Yale University, identifies a tendency for government officials to “see like a state”. There’s a related tendency for climate policy to “look for a state”, and to establish government as the primary bearer of responsibility for responses to migration.
As a result, emerging international and regional policies on climate migration tend to focus on planned relocation with government support, rather than movement through private agreements, or to urban informal settlements.
In international law, this is further reinforced through the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which provides that states bear primary responsibility for measures to reduce disaster risk. Sendai Framework priority actions include “relocation, where possible, of human settlements in disaster risk zones, subject to national law and legal systems”.
Under the Sendai Framework, local communities only have a role to play within “the enabling, guiding and coordinating role” of state governments.
To provide another example, the UNFCCC establishes a Least Developed Country (LDC) requirement for states to prepare National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPA).
Climate migration policy shouldn’t assume that states have a capacity to control human mobility regarding land.
The Solomon Islands’ NAPA states that resettlement of atoll populations will “depend entirely on national and provincial government efforts”, and that relocation of communities and villages will “necessarily become the responsibility of government at all levels”.
Similarly, while the recent Fiji Planned Relocation Guidelines emphasise the importance of engagement with local communities in planned relocation processes, they still describe planned relocation as a state-led process. There’s no guidance on climate migration outside of planned relocation.
In contrast, the Vanuatu National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement identifies migration to urban informal settlements, or through kinship networks, as areas of policy concern. However, the policy maintains the international law position that the government of Vanuatu has the primary role to direct the provision of assistance to communities in need.
Assessing the state of play
This week, the Monash University Centre for Commercial Law and Regulatory Studies (CLARS) and the Oxfam-Monash Partnership will be hosting a workshop, Law and Climate Migration in the Pacific: Towards Evidence-Based Outcomes.
The workshop brings together leading experts to assess the “state of play” regarding laws and policies on climate migration in the Pacific, and to explore the risks that current policy is too “top-down” and centred on the state.
Because states are the constituent units of international legal order, emerging standards on climate change and natural disasters identify the state as the primary bearer of responsibility for policy responses to migration and displacement.
Yet, climate migration policy shouldn’t assume that states have a capacity to control human mobility regarding land.
While some may benefit from planned relocation, most are likely to move through kinship networks, or to urban informal settlements, without support from governments.
As with the Vanuatu policy on climate change and displacement, there’s a clear need for policies that focus on matters such as slum upgrades and improvement, and measures to reduce conflict and discrimination arising from kinship migration, rather than planned relocation alone.
The rapid increases in climate migration that we’re seeing to our north may destabilise Pacific states in ways that will affect Australia.
As such, Australian policymakers should focus less on prospects for Pacific “boat people”, and far more on regional security and assistance to people who have had little or no role in the causes of anthropogenic climate change.
That assistance should not assume effective or capable states, or states that may be made capable through technical assistance. While far more evidence is required, it seems that most climate migration will take place at or beyond the margins of Pacific-state capacity to control human relationships of land.
The Centre for Commercial Law and Regulatory Studies (CLARS) at Monash University and the Oxfam-Monash Partnership are jointly hosting a workshop, Law and Climate Migration in the Pacific: Towards Evidence-Based Outcomes, on Friday, 12 April.