Government discourses of climate change migration in Tuvalu and Kiribati

Author: 
Roy Smith and Karen E McNamara

In low-lying countries of the Pacific, discussions concerning climate change as a trigger for migration have been contentious and fuelled by emotion and varying levels of sensitivity. In a recent discussion of the factors influencing the decision for migration in outer island communities in Tuvalu and Kiribati, Smith (2013: 23) posited: ‘Should they stay or should they go?

While the phenomenon of migration within and between countries in the Pacific due to natural disasters and localised environmental degradation is not something new in the region it remains a significant contemporary issue. In response, the governments of Tuvalu and Kiribati are mapping out very different long-term strategies to respond to the potential challenges of climate change migration.

For Tuvalu, migration as a result of climate change is seen as an option of last resort with rights to land and culture the paramount discourse (McNamara and Gibson, 2009). This position is bound up in people’s connection to place and what this means for identity, culture, spirituality and psychosocial well-being(Mortreux and Barnett, 2009). Willy Telavi, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, argues that their concern about migration is the loss of sovereignty. In Tuvalu, climate change migration is not wholly denied as a possible future scenario but this appears to be something that would only be considered in the case of a rapid-onset disaster event, rather than the progressive incremental environmental degradation of the islands. 

It was clear in interviews conducted in November 2012 with both the Prime Minister of Tuvalu and Minister for Foreign Affairs that they are seeking to maintain the emphasis on some localised adaptation measures and mitigation, as controlled by the major industrialised powers. That migration may be a future necessity for Tuvalu is not something that is currently widely acknowledged or accepted by other stakeholders. The reason for this is that if the discourse were to shift to migration as a realistic policy option, and one that donor governments could be seen facilitating, then this would further reduce the motivation to deal with the root causes of climate change. This is particularly noticeable at the local level with a very strong sense of personal and community identification with Tuvalu. This is something that can be said to be replicated in many communities around the world, but if anything, the suggestion that Tuvalu’s current situation and identity may be under threat appears to have reinforced this sense of homeland.

On the other hand, Kiribati is planning for staggered international migration on merit, backed by a government policy to re-train its people to migrate in the future to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. While the Kiribati Government has recently purchased 6,000 acres of land in Savusavu in Fiji, the official position is that this land is to ensure food security for the country. President Tong has gained worldwide attention for Kiribati’s situation via his speeches at international meetings but also his willingness to be interviewed in documentaries and by the press. He is photogenic, articulate and has a strong, emotive argument to present to the world. Despite this profile, or perhaps as a means to maintain this, Tong chose to not attend the UNFCCC COP18 meeting held in Doha. In a statement explaining his non-attendance at the Doha meeting he expressed clear disappointment, almost to the point of disillusionment, with the lack of progress being made on both restricting greenhouse gas emissions and also the creation and implementation of a Climate Change Fund to support communities facing the worst impacts of climate change and sea level rise. In an interview conducted in December 2012 with the Secretary for the Kiribati Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this sense of frustration over a lack of progress at the international level was further reiterated. 

This sense of frustration is coupled by dramatic statements made in some of the President’s speeches regarding migration as an active policy option. For instance in April 2013, the government held a national high-level public hearing on climate change and President Tong made it clear that: ‘The projection is that the sea level rise will render our islands submerged and virtually uninhabitable… We’re not being defeatist, we’re trying the best we can in the circumstances, but what must be understood is that if we have to migrate, we have to be ready’ (ABC, 2013: np). Kiribati has no internal migration option and therefore the government is not shy of explicitly referring to migration as a contemplated policy action, even if such drastic measures are not the preferred choice.

With relatively little progress being made at the international negotiating level, the issue of migration has been used by governments to highlight the difficulties facing low-lying countries in the Pacific. While both Tuvalu and Kiribati face similar challenges in relation to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, they appear to be responding to these in quite different ways.

This Editorial was first published on the Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 08 July 2013.