Climate migrants will need more than “dignity”

This article originally appeared on Newsroom

Moving large portions or even whole populations of low-lying states in the Pacific is a long-term enterprise that could go wrong if New Zealand doesn’t engage with it fully.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito Su’a William Sio have given strong statements about supporting climate migration from Kiribati and Tuvalu. They signalled something more sophisticated than simple migration, and innovation will be needed.

There are 114,000 I-Kiribati and only 11,000 Tuvaluans. New Zealand’s net immigration is around 70,000 people annually. Even though this may come down with the new government, the numbers of climate migrants under consideration are not significant, especially if relocation is done over years or even decades.

But while the numbers may be small for New Zealand, the move is significant for I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans.

The concerns about climate migration relate to transforming from being members of outright majorities in their home countries to members of small minorities elsewhere, especially if communities are fragmented throughout the region. Relocation could threaten the social fabric that enables I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans to manifest their national identities through culture, language, norms, customs, and so forth.

On its own, therefore, simple migration threatens their ways of life: te katei ni Kiribati and tuu mo aganu Tuvalu.

Kiribati Independence

Kiribati (1979) and Tuvalu (1978) were among the last Commonwealth states to recover their independence from the UK, and but again their existence as nations and peoples is threatened by exogenous forces.

To deal with Pacific climate migration, Shaw signalled interest in the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda. This is a voluntary framework for states to protect peoples who move across borders to escape sudden-onset disasters, like cyclones, and slow-onset disasters, like sea-level rise.

The Protection Agenda contains a number of recommendations. First, states need to collect data. They need to know which areas and communities are most at risk, and collaborate on developing scenarios for when and how cross-border relocation might occur.

Destination states, like New Zealand, also need to review their legal frameworks for managing incoming peoples: can existing visa schemes be adapted, or can visa requirements be waived altogether? Shaw is looking at developing an experimental humanitarian visa. Also, since returning to low-lying states will get more difficult and perhaps impossible, can the requirements for permanent residency and/or (dual) citizenship be simplified?

The Protection Agenda also recommends destination states provide assistance with basics: shelter, food, medical care, education, livelihoods, security, family unity, and respect for social and cultural identity.

For long-term settlers, measures to support sustained cultural and familial ties are recommended, along with recovery and reconstruction assistance.

The Protection Agenda is designed to be adapted for particular situations. What, then, are the local issues New Zealand, Kiribati and Tuvalu need to address?

Internationally, most cross-border displacement involves only a small part of a country’s population, but for Kiribati and Tuvalu climate change could require most or even entire populations moving permanently, and this has different implications.

Sio recognises low-lying islanders’ concerns about loss of national identity and suggests legislative protection for I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan languages.

But there is a broader issue, relevant in international law, but frequently overlooked in climate migration talks: the right to self-determination.

Self-determination is more than “migration with dignity” or being consulted.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which New Zealand ratified in 1978, self-determination is an inalienable, collective right of peoples to freely determine their political status and to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Climate migration risks self-determination in two important ways. First, communities may be fragmented: some move to Auckland, some to Suva, some to Brisbane. Second, communities transform from outright majority to small minority.

No matter how well-intentioned, if climate migration allows these things to happen, the result is the peoples’ right to self-determination will be undermined.

New Zealanders know well that depriving peoples, like iwi and hapū, of their enjoyment of self-determination is catastrophic.

Being forced to move to New Zealand might end up as a kind of inverse colonisation: instead of the coloniser coming to peoples and forcing them to assimilate the coloniser’s culture, peoples now have to come to another society and integrate into that society’s culture.

While cultures are not static phenomena, and the peoples will enjoy some measure of protection of their culture, within a couple of generations the changes for migrant I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans in a new, dominant culture will be profound.

In the short term, rescue and protection is the fundamental requirement, and that’s where New Zealand will likely start. But, working with I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan as equals, New Zealand must recognise these peoples’ inalienable right to self-determination.

We need to recognise, too, that te katei ni Kiribati and tuu mo aganu Tuvalu are different ways of life to Pākehā’s ‘Homo economicusmodus operandi, and also need to be enabled.

Long term, as well as providing humanitarian visas, we can work with the low-lying states on innovations to determine:

  • How Pacific islanders might own land (whether individually, or in common; perhaps in a form similar to Māori Freehold Land)
  • The type of legal person that represents their communities in New Zealand (like a trust or a corporation) and internationally (how their states continue or change into some other international legal personality)
  • How to enable cultural norms and practices, language, and national identity
  • Whether these countries can access global climate change adaptation funding to buy land and otherwise re-establish communities here in New Zealand
  • Whether we have another system of laws and norms – along with common law and Māori custom – and, if so, how that might work.

If New Zealand and the global community reduce greenhouse gases urgently and fund in situ adaptation, these innovations should be unnecessary.

But if migration becomes necessary for low-lying states and New Zealand wants to help, we have to do so in ways that are socially and culturally sustainable.

Sydney’s rainbow community need to head west

The majority support for marriage equality in Australia is, of course, something to celebrate. And yet, at a deep personal level, I feel gutted.

At the national level, there are some exciting statistics. For example, 78.2% of people aged 18 to 19 voted in favour. Also, every State and territory voted in favour, and every single electorate voted in favour in the ACT, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

If I still lived in Australia (I’ve been in New Zealand for over a decade), perhaps I’d feel it differently. But, from here, 61.6% doesn’t feel like a “landslide” to me.

4,873,987 individual adult Australians, that is, 38.4% of those who submitted their survey, voted against the human rights of LGBTI+ people.

Many of those people live in Western Sydney.

I grew up in the suburb of Greystanes, which is about seven kilometres west of Parramatta, and in the electorate of McMahon that also includes Blacktown, Penrith and Fairfield.

McMahon had Australia’s third highest “No” vote: 65% of its residents voted against the equal treatment under the law of LGBTI+ people.

When I was in fourth class, at Beresford Road Public School, Culture Club were the big thing. After we’d gotten our heads around Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit in compulsory recorder lessons, the class was allowed to choose a popular song, from a limited list, that we’d learn to play. As a 9 or 10 year old boy, I was already hesitant to admit I wanted to do the Culture Club song, but it seemed most of the class was keen. So, I worked around my internal tensions and raised my hand at the right moment.

Unfortunately for me, “most of the class” turned out to be all the girls. The 9 and 10 year old boys in the class teased and bullied me mercilessly for being a “poofter” and a “girl”, and shoved me around the playground in the breaks. This went on for days, and the name-calling and ostracization continued for years: through until about year 11. Pure and simple, that moment in fourth class defined me as a “fag” – the guy who “gets a hard-on doin’ a shit” – even after that particular class was long forgotten (by the bullies).

Those school years – at Beresford Road Public School, Greystanes High, and Newman High (since renamed St Pauls Catholic College) – were torturous and left scars.

It is reasonable to expect some positive cultural shift, even in Sydney’s west, flowing from the survey result and the eventual passing of legislation (that, hopefully, won’t be bastardized by the conservatives).

But, for my mind, the results in Western Sydney are appalling.

Right this minute, as you read this, there are bisexual, gay, lesbian and/or transgender people of all ages who will be dealing – loudly or silently – with heinous treatment – directly or indirectly – by their families, friends, and peers.

As I imagine them, I can’t feel the excitement that so many others are enjoying because of the overall survey result.

So, enjoy the moment, and then, dear Sydneysiders, head west. LGBTI+ people there need a community where they are respected for who they are. Reach out to them and you will save lives and heartbreak.

Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk by Jan Matejko 1862

“Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk” by Jan Matejko (1862)

It’s Literally (not Figuratively) Erasure

Twitter has applied a “sensitive material” filter on the word “bisexual”, with the result being that a search for that word finds no results under Twitter’s categories of “Photos”, “Videos” and “News”.

Put the shoe on the other foot: imagine the response if all results were filtered when people searched Twitter for “Catholic”, or “MAGA”, or simply their favourite sports team.

There is abundant research showing that, compared to their straight and gay counterparts, bisexual people suffer dire outcomes in terms of mental health, suicidality, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual practices. These outcomes are caused by a unique form of prejudice, biphobia.

Biphobia is manifested in a number of ways, but relevant here is bisexual erasure. Erasure involves denying the existence of bisexuality altogether (“there’s no such thing”). Alternatively, it may involve situations where the revelation of a person’s bisexuality is met with assertions that they’re not; that they’re actually straight, gay or lesbian, or just “going through a phase”, and other such claims.

An insidious form of erasure is the literal removal of bisexuality from LGBTI+ vocabulary (“gay marriage”), research (“gay men”, when referring to all men who have sex with men), and participation in LGBTI+ organisations and events.

Removing “bisexual” as a search term in a global social media platform literally erases bisexual people’s existence, and cuts off a central resource for community and erasureTwitter has not yet explained its reasons, so we can only speculate that this action was conceived of, developed, and implemented to stop something less desirable than, for example, climate change denial and white supremacy, which are discussed liberally on the platform.

This buys into another form of biphobia: negative stereotypes. If Twitter were attempting to filter out hyper-sexualised content tagged with “bisexual”, then removing all bisexual content perpetuates the myth that bisexual people are promiscuous and indiscriminate.

The blunt policy choice speaks volumes of the biphobia at Twitter, since the company surely could have rolled out nuanced filtering systems.

Even after two days of outcry by bisexual users all over the world, the search capability has not been restored, even though online bullies, misogynists, racists and bigots can have their account up and running again within 11 minutes after something goes awry.[1]

Scholarly research on what enhances bisexual people’s wellbeing finds that an important factor is access to online social networks.[2] The web offers a community and a sense of belonging. It’s a source of information and resources for bisexual people and people exploring their sexual orientation, so #bisexual matters.

Twitter’s simpleton policy — implemented without ex ante consultation or warning, or ex post explanation or correction — literally removes this important source of wellbeing.

Rubbing salt into the wound, at the time of writing, the problem does not seem to have been reported on or discussed on social media by any New Zealand-based LGBTI+ organisation, except Beyond Binaries (of which I am a founding trustee and operate the Twitter account).

All together, this paints a picture of deep biphobia.