Migration has been a part of Pacific life for thousands of years. In the past few decades, economic pressures, coupled with climate change, are driving migration which has come to be seen as an escape or release valve for pressures building in the small Pacific Island states. Remittances from migrants working abroad have benefited their families and communities back home. But while increasing economic and environmental pressures are both pushing for more migration, the COVID-19 shutdowns and border closures closed the escape valve – at least in the short term.
In recent decades, most migration has been from the Pacific Island countries (PICs) to Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have developed labor schemes through which Pacific Islanders are permitted to travel for work on a regular basis, such as the Pacific Access Category Resident Visa in New Zealand and Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme. Among some smaller PICs, the overseas population far outnumbers the population in the home countries; these diaspora populations maintain links with their homelands and send remittances which contribute significantly to those countries’ economies. Presently, more than a million Pacific Islanders live in Australia, New Zealand the US.
Migration has provided employment opportunities that most Pacific countries simply cannot produce at home, particularly given the region’s youth bulge. While all of the islands have experienced urban growth, jobs in the region’s cities are limited and the environmental consequences of increasing urbanization are alarming. In this context, labor migration has come to function as both an essential component of development and as an ‘escape’ or ‘release’ valve.
At the same time that economic forces are driving people to move in order to find jobs, environmental factors – particularly the impacts of climate change – are likely to drive further migration within and beyond the region. The Pacific is exposed both to sudden- and slow-onset effects of climate change. Sudden-onset effects include disasters such as tropical cyclones. Indeed Vanuatu and Tonga are rated numbers 1 and 2 on the World Disaster Risk index. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that at least 50,000 Pacific Islanders are at risk of being displaced every year by disasters. The slow-onset long-term effects of climate change – including increased storm surges, ocean acidification and sea level rise are also likely to lead to more migration, both within countries and across borders. Atoll nations with low elevations – such as Kiribati and Tuvalu – are particularly vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise.
Economic and environmental pressures, along with education, family reunification and other social and cultural factors are drivers of migration in the Pacific region. But today, the pandemic is closing opportunities for travel – and for migration.
When COVID-19 struck, governments of Pacific Island countries reacted quickly and effectively. They closed their borders and imposed restrictions on internal migration to keep the virus out of their islands. And by sealing their borders, they have mostly fared well in terms of COVID-19 numbers. As of 9 December 2020, only the two largest countries have had significant outbreaks, namely Papua New Guinea (677 cases) and Fiji (44 cases), and the rest remain largely COVID-free. But the economic costs of shutting down travel have been heavy, particularly to countries that depend on tourism. Fiji, where 40 percent of the economy is related to tourism, is looking at an economic contraction of more than 20 percent in 2020. Those countries least dependent on tourism are those faring best; for example, Tuvalu, with a virtually non-existent tourist industry, is anticipated to register the region’s only positive growth for the year. Loss of remittance income is being felt throughout the region.
Several countries are seeing spontaneous and/or government-sponsored returns to rural areas and outlying islands, and toward traditional sources of livelihood that had become relatively less important in the last decade.This, in turn, raises significant challenges in terms of availability of land, pressure on inshore fisheries and ability for village-level physical and social infrastructure to cope with influx of migrants.
Today the links between COVID-19 and climate change are being drawn by leaders in the region. As Meg Taylor, Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum said, “the COVID-19 public health emergency and its ensuing humanitarian and economic fallout offers a glimpse of what the global climate change emergency can become – if it is left unchecked and if we do not act now.” Intra-regional cooperation between PICs has historically been strong and it is possible that the present crisis will further strengthen these ties as Fijian Prime Minister and incoming chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Vorege Bainimarama, remarked: “Now as we face these dual crises – climate change and contagion – island nations must stand together with a more united voice than ever before.”
The economic and environmental pressures which have contributed to drive migration in the Pacific region are likely to continue and even intensify in the future. Restoring that migration will be key to the region’s recovery from COVID-19.
For further discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on migration in Asia and the Pacific, please join a webinar on 18 December – International Migrants Day.
For further readings, see:
Asian Development Bank. (2020, September). Asian Development Outlook 2020 Update: Wellness in Worrying Times.
Doan, D. et al. (2020, November 30), Pacific Labor Mobility, Migration and Remittances in Times of COVID-19: Interim Report. World Bank.
ILO, “Labour Mobility in Pacific Island Countries.” November 2019
ILO. (2020, September 23). ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work, Sixth Edition.
McAdam, Jane and Jonathan Pryke. (2020. October) Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Actions. Kaldor Centre of International Refugee Law.
Tan, Y., “Cyclone Harold and coronavirus: Pacific Islands face battle on two fronts.” BBC News, April 15, 2020
Elizabeth Ferris is Research Professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She also serves as a Research and Publishing High-Level Advisor to IOM.
This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.