A great deal of the discussion about relocating people from low-lying atoll countries focuses on migration; a flexible but particular legal mechanism for managing the movement of individuals between countries.
But migration does not need to be the only way of moving from one territory to another. New ways are entirely possible. Ways that keep communities functioning together.
Migration as Assimilation and Colonisation
But the migration paradigm is deeply set. A new report, Tuvalu: Climate Change and Migration, is the latest example. It directly acknowledges the risks posed by migration, saying that:
“A previous study found that many Tuvaluans will not consider migration … as it will lead to a loss of sovereignty and cultural identity.” [p 64]
In spite of these concerns, the authors specifically recommend that:
“migration … should be promoted” [p 64]
The authors attempt to appease the Tuvaluans’ concerns, saying that their “perspectives need to be acknowledged in order to facilitate dignified migration”. [p 64]
First of all, it’s not a mere “perspective”. It is culture, and culture is life.
As the President of the Marshall Islands, Hilde Heine, recently said:
“Marshallese people, culture and land have a symbiotic relationship – one that can’t exist without the other. That’s why moving is not a viable option. As a nation facing cultural extinction due to climate change, we plead to stronger and major polluting countries to spare us the eminent fate of being climate refugees.”
Similarly, in an outstanding case study of the Carteret Islanders’ relocation, Sophie Pascoe found that:
“Leaving the islands is very traumatic for the Carteret Islanders because it means leaving their livelihoods, values, culture and ancestors behind.”
Migration with dignity is a noble idea. But given the scale of loss facing low-lying islanders, the forced relocation of peoples with deep cultural, spiritual and ancestral ties to land and sea is a catastrophic result of carbon pollution, no matter how well their movement is planned and managed.
Forced migration is nothing like lifestyle migration, and it should not be equated with it or confused with it.
Think of it as a kind of inverse colonisation. Instead of the coloniser coming to a peoples and forcing them to assimilate into the coloniser’s culture, they’re now forcing the peoples to come to them and integrate into wider society.
Culture is not a static phenomenon, so cultures change. Also, the people will enjoy a nominal measure of protection in their new country. (For example, in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, minorities have a right to enjoy their culture.) However, within just a couple of generations, the changes for migrant people and families in a new, dominant culture will be massive and inevitable. This is the risk that President Heine is referring to in her comments above.
Relocation: A Long-Term Enterprise with Self-Determination at its Very Core
Discussion on migration – despite its good intentions – almost never addresses the fact that Tuvaluans, as a peoples, have a collective right of self-determination in international law. In the new report about Tuvalu and migration, the term “self-determination” does not even appear.
Self-determination is far more than mere dignity, or simply the acknowledgement of a perspective. It is a right to autonomy, governance, and – indeed – continuity of statehood.
The collective right of self-determination is international law of jus cogens* and erga omnes* character and status. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of international law, critical to achieving all other human rights, and a basis for international peace and security.
But relocation discourse rarely entertains the concept and this must change. Focusing on migration is a massive breach of the right of self-determination, and the concomitant right for these sovereign States to continue, and to continue to give effect to the values, cultures and aspirations of their peoples.
Ensuring continued enjoyment of self-determination in the territory of another State is a challenge. But it just requires some innovating thinking.
At the most basic level, the lexicon must change from “migration”, “displaced persons” and “refugee”, to “relocation” or “human mobility”: words and phrases which don’t have particular legal meanings or any existing political baggage, to ensure our minds are open to a more creative range of solutions.
For the nations, cultures, languages, traditions, customs and – therefore – the peoples of low-lying States, relocation must then be considered as an extremely long-term enterprise, that has their collective right of self-determination at its core, along with all the substantive and procedural rights that follow.
Given that low-lying islanders bear absolutely no responsibility for climate change, this is the least we can do. If not, then we’re hitting them twice: once in the territory; once in the nation.