Should Australia’s new Pacific Engagement Visa prioritize climate refugees?

The recently announced Pacific Engagement Visa provides a framework to help support Pacific island countries struggling with climate-related internal displacement, write Michael Kabuni and Akka Rimon.

Australia’s new Labor government has made improving relations with Pacific island countries one of its foreign policy pillars. In addition to frequent visits to the region by Foreign Minister Penny Wong, the government has also promised to improve working regimes for Pacific Islanders and to focus more on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

A major initiative in this regard has been the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership (PCIP), which aims to support the construction of new climate-resilient infrastructure as the region addresses climate impacts and transitions to cleaner energy sources.

But will building climate-resilient infrastructure and cleaner energy sources prevent climate-vulnerable communities, like Carteret Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Tarawa in Kiribati, from being displaced by sea level rise? The immediate answer is no.

The painful truth is that even if all existing coal mines were closed tomorrow, the impact of climate change on the region is already irreversible and existential.

As such, the problem for many has shifted from preventing communities from sinking to knowing what to do when it happens. This is a major concern as Pacific island countries often have limited options for internal relocation.

Kiribati, a small island state located between Australia and Hawaii, is an example.

While its total area is roughly the size of New York, its exclusive economic zone is equivalent to the Indian subcontinent. Despite this, Kiribati’s minimal land elevation – just three meters above sea level – makes it extremely vulnerable to climate change.

As a result, climate change is an existential threat to the atoll nation. Rapid coastal erosion, lack of water and food security, extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels and prolonged droughts are all facts of daily life.

Unlike larger countries with higher lands, the I-Kiribati peoples have nowhere to go but across the seas. Fortunately, there are options for those displaced by climate change. In 2003, the then government of Kiribati introduced the migrate with dignity policy, to help resettle Pacific peoples and promote labor mobility as an economic adaptation to climate change.

This paved the way for the Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI) in 2006, the Seasonal Worker Program Pilot Scheme (SWPPS) in 2008, the Seasonal worker program in 2012and the Pacific Work Plan in 2018. The KANI program in particular has engaged 90 nurses currently working and living in Australia.

At the national level, the Kiribati Department of Employment works directly with Australian employers and recruitment agencies to facilitate the training and recruitment of Kiribati youth through its Offshore Employment Center. This has seen an increase in the SWP from 11 workers in 2010 to 392 in 2021, with a parallel increase in the number of employers from 1 in 2010 to 18 in 2022.

PNG is another example. Although it is significantly larger than Kiribati and has higher elevations, it also faces significant issues of resettling climate refugees internally. Roughly 95% of its territory belongs to more than 1,000 clans and tribes. As a result, the government has limited space for people displaced by climate change.

A key example is the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands in PNG, who have been referred to as first climate change refugees. Attempts to relocate the communities of Cateret have been made through a Council of Elders called Tulele Pisa. This resulted in resettlement plans in Bougainville. Unfortunately, political, financial and land issues have stalled progress, mirroring issues associated with many climate-affected communities around the world.

For PNG and other Melanesian countries, governments need help developing resettlement plans and options for working with customary landowners to find space for refugees.

In March 2022, the governments of PNG and Australia sign the second bilateral MoU under the new Pacific Australia Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme. PNG has one of fewer workers participating in these programs even though it has the largest population in the Pacific.

In addition, PNG and Kiribati have some of the the lowest rates of out-migration in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the total number of Pacific-born migrants living in its member countries is now 420,000.

About 94% of them come from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau. Five percent come from low-mobility countries like PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and just one percent from atoll countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu.

gGiven their low mobility, their limited capacity for internal resettlement and their high vulnerability to climate change, there is a reasonable argument to assert that the new Pacific Engagement Visa should give priority to these countries. The program, which creates a pathway to permanent residency for 3,000 Pacific workers each year, would be a lifeline for states with limited capacity to resettle climate refugees.

The world has spent a lot of time focusing on the failure of industrialized countries to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, in many cases it is now too late to save vulnerable Pacific communities, but we can at least make sure they have somewhere to go.