Thursday, August 5, 2021


South Pacific: Kiribati Seeks Climate Change Refuge in Fiji

Small island nations are now feeling so threatened by the prospect of rising sea levels and super storms from climate change that they are making plans to flee to safer shores.

(Some of Kiribati's tiny islets/KevGuy4101 Photo)

First, the government of the low-lying Maldives announced that they would be using their sovereign wealth fund to buy land in countries like Australia; now, the government of the tiny South Pacific country of Kiribati is looking to the larger island chain of Fiji for a potential new home for its more than 110,000 citizens. The reason that these countries are planning for such an extreme emigration comes down to one thing – the threat of rising sea levels projected by many climate change models. If the most severe of these models are valid, entire countries – including the Maldives, Niue, and Kiribati – should be very concerned indeed.

In the event that the dire predictions made by these climatologists come true, these tiny island nations would simply disappear beneath rising waters, leaving tens of thousands of people stateless and desperate, refugees from an environment changing disastrously, and for reasons far out of their control. In Kiribati’s case, it is seeking to negotiate with Fiji, located a not-too-distant 2,100 km away, to purchase land and arrange for some form of transitional citizenship. Their government is in talks with Fijian leaders to purchase 20 square kilometres as an emergency haven.

So why did the Kiribati government choose Fiji? Fiji not only has a larger landmass than Kiribati – approximately 19,400 square kilometres, as opposed to Kiribati’s tiny 811 square kilometres – but its general elevation is significantly higher. Fiji’s main islands have rugged, mountainous interiors that peak at well over 1,300 metres, making many parts of the country safe from even worst-case scenarios for sea level increases. With a population density of only 46.4 people per square kilometre, which places the country down the list at 148th most dense in the world, there also seems to be room to spare.

(Atoll in Kiribati/Angela Kepler Photo)

However, Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, has said publicly on Tongan television that he understands that the mass move to Fiji, should it become necessary, is not without significant challenges – including reservations on the part of the Fijian government. One way to ease the transition, he suggested, was ensuring that the people of Kiribati will be welcomed as productive citizens of Fiji, as opposed to being seen as refugee outsiders. His plan is to increase the level of education of his people, and helping them become skilled tradespeople to make them more employable.

“They need to find employment,” Tong said. “Not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.” He emphasized that in his view, the situation could be life-or-death for his people. “This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” he said. “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.”

Read more about this story: Wired Magazine

1 comment to South Pacific: Kiribati Seeks Climate Change Refuge in Fiji

  • Jennifer Doherty

    Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

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