Richard Bedford 

There has been no shortage of meetings debating the potential impacts of accelerated environmental degradation that is linked with global warming.  In the Pacific region alone there have been major meetings addressing climate-change related issues over the past three months in New Zealand (Pacific Parliamentarian Forum), Australia (The Refugee Council of Australia), Cook Islands (Nansen Initiative), Solomon Islands (Pacific Council of Churches), and Kiribati (the President’s public consultation). 

In New Zealand on 4 and 5 June 2013 an international conference on climate change will review the latest evidence from research  while in Nadi between 3 and 5 July the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) will host the Pacific Climate Change Roundtable which is billed as “the most significant regional gathering on climate change this year”.   In early September 2013 the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands will host the 44th Pacific Islands Forum meeting which has as its theme: “Marshalling the Pacific response to climate change”. 

The Pacific response to climate change is rooted in ‘self help’ but, as the Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands observed in a recent issue of the Washington Post (reported in New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times, June 2, 2013, B14), the efforts by Marshallese to prevent their livelihoods being destroyed by prolonged and unseasonal drought (a current crisis) or higher tides (an increasing challenge for all atoll dwellers) “will put only a tiny dent in this problem”.  New, much bolder, regional and international approaches are needed – approaches that allow people to remain in their homes as long as possible while also providing more opportunities for those who wish to leave and create new lives in less affected environments.  To set the scene for the new, bolder approach, the Marshall Islands proposes a Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership as a road map for tangible action in an effort to set aside the ‘you-go-first’ dynamic that has stalled international consultations on climate change.  

Pacific governments in most of the atoll territories gave up waiting for the international community to take concerted action to address mitigation of climate change some years ago.   Their focus, realistically, has been and remains on adaptation to changes that pose major threats to the survival of their low-lying island homes.  Neither are they particularly interested in the discourse about a ‘climate refugee’ treaty – as Jane McAdam notes in her blog  on the Nansen Initiative’s Consultation on Cross-Border Displacement from Natural Disasters and Climate Change in the Cook Islands, “the idea of a new ‘climate treaty’ was never raised as a desirable option. … The ‘climate refugee’ framework has no purchase in the Pacific because it does not fit with the kind of movement we are likely to see nor the self-help approach that Pacific peoples advocate.”   She observed that “Participants identified initiatives at the community, national, regional and international levels that would facilitate adaptation and enable people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, while also developing strategies to enhance mobility for those who wishes to move”. 

After all the talk about adaptation to climate change in vulnerable Pacific states this year as well as in previous regional and international meetings, there is clearly going to be an expectation at the Pacific Forum meeting in Majuro of some tangible concessions with regard to international migration as an integral component of adaptation strategies in the region.  Will Australia and New Zealand show any leadership in this regard or will there continue to be a “let’s wait and see how bad things get before we act” approach to migration in response to environmental degradation?  This is not easy territory to traverse, but some action, rather than continued procrastination, is definitely called for if individuals and families are to have the ability to move to and adjust to new homes in safer environments over time rather than be forced to resettle at some stage in the future. 

At the Pacific Forum meeting in Nadi in October 2006, the New Zealand Prime Minister of the day, Helen Clark, responded positively to increasing pressure from Pacific leaders for greater access to the New Zealand labour market for younger Pacific rural residents who had very limited opportunities to obtain wage employment at home.  She announced that New Zealand would introduce a seasonal work policy that allowed for several thousand people from Pacific Forum countries to work in the horticulture and viticulture industries.  The resulting Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) work policy, which has been widely praised for achieving wins for workers, employers and island communities, was adopted with modifications by Australia in their Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (PSWPS) and its successor, the Seasonal Work Program. 

Will New Zealand’s Prime Minister who will attend the Pacific Forum in Majuro, John Key, be able to respond positively to calls for more options for voluntary migration by people affected adversely by environmental degradation, especially in low-lying atolls and reef islands?  Can New Zealand’s existing immigration policies, including the Pacific Access Category that allows for small numbers of Pacific people from specific countries to ballot for annual residence quotas, be adjusted so they are more responsive to the needs of increasing numbers of  Pacific people who wish to establish more secure livelihoods overseas for their families? 

Jane McAdam points out in her blog that the Nansen Initiative’s regional consultation in the Cook Islands “encouraged States to review their admission and immigration policies to enable voluntary migration at an early stage, as well as mechanisms for temporary and permanent protection for those displaced by natural disasters.”  What better way for New Zealand and Australia to show some leadership in this regard at the Pacific Forum meeting in one of the world’s few countries that is comprised entirely of low-lying atolls and reef islands.  What better way to launch the “Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership”.  Are our politicians up to another Nadi-type announcement of something quite tangible in the area of migration as an adaptation strategy at the Pacific Forum meeting in Majuro?  

Professor Richard Bedford 

Population Geography, University of Waikato 

Hamilton, New Zealand 


Professor Richard Bedford QSO, FRSNZ is Professor of Population Geography in the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA) at the University of Waikato and Pro Vice-Chancellor Research at Auckland University of Technology. He is a specialist in migration research and since the mid-1960s he has been researching processes of population movement in the Asia-Pacific region. In the late 1970s he was a member of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme addressing population-environment relations in small islands in Fiji. More recently he has worked with colleagues in Australia on a major review of climate change and migration in the Asia-Pacific region for the Asian Development Bank. He is currently a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Official Statistics (ACOS), and an adviser to the Department of Labour on the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) work policy. His current research addresses the policy implications, for New Zealand and Australia, of population developments and migration trends in the Pacific, including the impact of climate change on migration.  

This Editorial was first published on the Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 3 June 2013. 

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action