Joana Allamani and Annabella Korbatov are MA students in the Energy, Resources and Environment program.

Every year, sea level rise eats away at the coastlines of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDs), endangering the homes and livelihoods of millions of people. These islands, made up of low-lying atolls that reach only a few meters above sea-level, are particularly susceptible to climate change, as sea water encroachment taints groundwater, poisons arable land, drowns livable islets, and accelerates soil erosion and the loss of coral reefs. 

The people of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Timor-Leste, and the 17 other PSIDs whose islands might be rendered virtually uninhabitable by 2050 will then become part of a wholly new kind of refugee crisis. In fleeing their sinking homelands, they stand to lose their entire national identities and cultures. There’s a major deficiency in the international legal system that makes mitigating or preparing for this impending crisis difficult, with potentially devastating consequences for PSIDs – environmental and climate refugees currently have no legal recognition. The term “environmental refugee” presently has no legal basis – as far as international law is concerned, no one can claim refugee status due to the effects of climate change. The Geneva convention on refugees only recognizes those fleeing their homes due to persecution because of race, religion, or nationality.

The PSIDs have tested the legal waters, but to no avail. In 2015, a Kiribati national named Ioane Teitiota tried to get recognition as the world’s first climate change refugee in New Zealand, but his attempts were unsuccessful. The island nation of Tuvalu also appealed to regional neighbors New Zealand and Australia to accept its 11,000 inhabitants once the island becomes uninhabitable, but both refused.

Without official legal recognition of their status as refugees, states and international organizations will be under no legal obligation to assist environmental migrants and will likely evade any legal or financial responsibility for assisting them. Because the drafting and ratification of treaties takes years or decades, PSIDs must move quickly. In the absence of a binding international treaty that establishes a comprehensive governance framework for refugees of climate change, PSIDs must pursue bilateral or multilateral agreements with Australia, New Zealand, or other potential host states. In the long term, the international community must come together to ratify a “Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change [which] would establish an international regime for the provision of pre-emptive, adaptive assistance to those likely to be displaced,” according to David Hodgkinson and Lucy Young. Such a convention should establish official recognition of refugee status for environmental migrants.

With repatriation or relocation to uninhabited Pacific islands not viable options for the people of the PSIDs, population transfer and resettlement into new countries remains their best hope. The nature of resettlement would ultimately be determined by the multilateral or bilateral agreements negotiated with host countries. Whether the refugees would be granted autonomous regions within countries or be expected to integrate into the local culture remains a thorny question. How best to preserve PSIDs’ national identities and cultural heritages are also nontrivial concerns, but are subordinate to immediate threats to the physical survival of the islanders.

Lastly, to protect the economic livelihoods of recently displaced peoples, efforts must be made to safeguard and preserve the PSIDs’ economic assets, especially the value generated from fishing and trade in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). PSIDs should retain the legal rights to their EEZs, and be able to use the economic benefits to offset the financial burdens they suffer from their relocation and resettlement.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Lonnoc Beach, Vanuatu" by Grace Wye is licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0