Refugee expert states alarmist talk on climate change

Don’t be alarmed by sensationalist headlines like “future flood of ‘climate refugees’ ahead?” or “loss of coral triangle may trigger refugee flood to Australia and New Zealand”, says a visiting migration expert; they are just media buzzwords that promote fear.

Philippe Boncour, Head of International Dialogue for the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration says in reality, there is no such thing as a climate or environmental refugee, because the 1951 convention that governs refugee status makes it mandatory that there must be persecution by a state to qualify.

“There is an ongoing debate around what will happen to people who have to cross into another state because of environmental and climate issues; for those people there is a legal and protection gap, they have no rights. The humanitarian community is lobbying to have some kind of acknowledgment at Copenhagen [United Nations climate change conference, December 2009] of the humanitarian impact of climate change.”

In Wellington in July as keynote speaker at the “Climate Change and Migration in the South Pacific region” symposium at Victoria University, Philippe says the Pacific region is likely to be one of the areas most affected by climate change, due to the high risk of increases in sea levels and salinisation of land.

“Many of the Pacific countries are very vulnerable, and within those countries women, children, the elderly and the disabled are even more vulnerable, and they deserve our special attention.”

Philippe says he’s often asked how much sea levels will rise in the Pacific, but this is difficult to predict because there are different scenarios put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some scenarios have many of the Pacific islands still habitable; other, more extreme scenarios would see islands “sinking” and those living there having to resettle elsewhere.

Whether these people would go primarily to Australia or New Zealand is, Philippe says, something that has not been determined in any way. If there was relocation, it would not be as extreme as the headlines suggest. “Because we are talking about a gradual process, something that would not occur overnight, so discussions should take place on a regional and global level on how to deal with that. The Pacific island countries are small, therefore it is much easier to plan for this, and if movement needs to occur it could happen with dignity.’’

“What we have observed in our work is that even in very difficult circumstances, people want to go back to the place they belong - even if they know that a similar extreme weather event can occur again, people want to return. They view the migratory option as the worst-case scenario.’’

There are many places in the world where temporary labour schemes, like the New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, are in place for seasonal agricultural workers. The temporary nature of these schemes, Philippe says, has proved to be very efficient at alleviating the burden on areas affected by the impacts of climate change.

“The workers benefit from learning new agricultural techniques to take back. Over a number of seasons, they get familiar with new ways of life and the understanding between the community of origin and the host community improves dramatically. One option for New Zealand would be to enhance this temporary labour programme to make it eligible to people coming from affected areas.’’

The issue of relocation – as has happened in the Carterets Islands, where the people have relocated to Bougainville – or resettlement, is something that Philippe would like to see given greater consideration. He asks whether there needs to be “a more open spirit, and not telling people what place they should go to, and not telling a country they should welcome x number of people.”

Philippe says that the Pacific region deserves a lot of credit for the climate change initiatives it has taken. “At Kyoto, New Zealand and the Pacific countries, as part of the coalition of small islands, were the first to plead that greenhouse gas emissions be cut; and the Pacific islands,

NZ and Australia were the origin of the recently adopted resolution on “Climate change and its possible security implications” at the UN General Assembly. New Zealand and the Pacific countries have the potential to lead other nations”.

“Recently I was talking with people from Kiribati who were telling me how their country has to build walls and plant mangroves to stop the rising tides entering their homes and fields. Although many might leave to come to NZ and Australia to live, I got the impression that there are also many who want to do as much as they can to continue to live on their home islands. I sensed they had hope but mostly they seemed frustrated and worried.

Hope, because they can see that planting mangroves is working for now, and frustration because they don’t believe they caused the change in climate and yet are suffering the consequences of that change.” 

The Rev Stuart Simpson,
Global Mission Office

“The Pacific communities are facing a brand new threat - climate change – one they have never had to encounter before. They have always faced adverse weather conditions and have lived to tell the tale. This has strengthened their resolve that with God on their side, everything is possible, and that God had promised Noah there would not be another flood, so they place their fate in God’s hands and will not be moved by anything to leave their homes. This view is common with the elderly. The question here is not a matter of wanting to leave or not to leave home but the question of survival.”

The Rev Asora Amosa,
Pacific Island Synod

“There will be an imminent threat of wide-spread relocation of Pacific peoples and nations in the near future. Our Church members are already informing us that this will become inevitable if nothing substantive is done to ensure a comprehensive adaptation programme is conducted throughout the entire Pacific region. However, I find it disconcerting that the media are primarily focused on Pacific islanders flooding into Aotearoa and taking New Zealand jobs. Sensation does sell and this issue might mistakenly be labelled as such, but climate change in the Pacific isn’t a sensation, it’s a reality. We need to address it from the angle of ‘our collective responsibility to act justly and with compassion’. Our recent Church Leaders’ Meeting was a clarion call to our collective need to act now. The outcomes statement, “The Moana Declaration”, was the Churches’ call to a comprehensive action on the issue of climate change and resettlement.”

The Rev Fe’iloakitau Kaho Tevi,
General Secretary Pacific Conference of Churches

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