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.

Migration = Assimilation

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

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Woman on Funafuti, 1900 (source: Wikipedia)

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.