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Pacific Islanders reject 'climate refugee' status, want to 'migrate with dignity', SIDS conference hears

Pacific Islanders reject 'climate refugee' status, want to 'migrate with dignity', SIDS conference hears

Pacific Islanders reject 'climate refugee' status, want to 'migrate with dignity', SIDS conference hears

Updated 6 September 2014, 12:55 AEST

Pacific Island communities who may be forced to flee rising sea levels say they want to be able to migrate with dignity.

They have long been described as climate refugees: the hundreds of thousands of people living on low-lying Pacific islands who may be forced to migrate if rising sea levels leave their homes uninhabitable.

But it is a term Pacific leaders say is loaded with political connotations and does not reflect the true dimensions of the problem.

"They see [refugee] as a negative term that connotes victimhood and people in need of protection by the international community," Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW, told the ABC.

"For them it signifies that they've become people who don't have any agency or aren't able to contribute.

They can be worthwhile citizens when we relocate them as a community, not as refugees.

Kiribati's president Anote Tong

"What Pacific Islanders have told me is that, 'we want to be seen as active economic and social contributors to any country to which we might need to move. We would like to have opportunities to migrate with dignity rather than have to wait until the situation becomes so dire that we are forcibly displaced'."

The sentiment was echoed at the International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which wrapped up in Apia, Samoa, on Thursday.

"I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees," Kiribati's president Anote Tong said from the conference sidelines.

"[But] we have to acknowledge the reality that with the rising sea, the land area available for our populations will be considerably reduced and we cannot accommodate all of them, so some of them have to go somewhere, but not as refugees.

"We have more than enough time now to train them, to up-skill them, so that they can be worthwhile citizens when we relocate them as a community, not as refugees."

Professor McAdam said countries like Australia and New Zealand should invest in training Pacific workers, either in their home countries or by expanding their guest worker schemes.

"Then when people move they've got skills that could be well used within Australia or New Zealand and they can contribute back to their new society," she said.

"They have remittances they can send home to alleviate pressures there and to assist family members who stay behind, and that in turn could actually be quite a positive thing when it comes to adaptation in those countries."

Legal claims for refugee status not upheld

Last month, New Zealand's Immigration and Protection Tribunal granted residency to a family from Tuvalu who claimed they would be affected by climate change if they returned home.

But it made the decision on humanitarian grounds, because the applicants had close family ties in New Zealand, rather than recognising them as climate refugees.

In May, a man from Kiribati lost an appeal in New Zealand over his claim to be a climate change refugee.

New Zealand's government this week ruled out lobbying for changes to the United Nations Refugee Convention to accommodate those forced to move by climate change.

"I am no way near convinced that we should start to divert what level of capacity we have to welcome refugees from what is now essentially a problem that may become quite severe in 50 years," New Zealand's Climate Change Minister Tim Groser told a debate convened to discuss climate policy.

"We've got communities in various countries in the world facing acute humanitarian crises like in Iraq.

"From a humanitarian point of view, to try and divert across from those people to other people [in the Pacific], I'm not buying that argument."

Advocates say that while some climate-induced migration is inevitable, Pacific Islanders' own preference is to stay where they are.

"People in the Pacific Islands ... tell us, 'we do not want to be refugees because refugees are people who are marginalised and in desperation depend on handouts. We don't want that. We want to stay [in our home countries]'," Walter Kaelin, a former special envoy on internal displacement for the UN secretary general, told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat.

"Number one: invest in mitigation, invest in climate change adaptation so people can stay. Number two: even more importantly, plan for climate change adaptation so that human mobility is factored in."

Australia has joined the steering group of the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, which aims to "build consensus on the development of a protection agenda" for those forced to flee natural disasters and the effects of climate change.

"We do need to enable people to have opportunities to migrate ... but we also need to combine that with disaster risk reduction strategies, with adaptation strategies and with good development practices so that we have a holistic approach to the issue," said Professor McAdam, who sits on the Nansen Initiative's consultative committee.

She said the Nansen Initiative will put forward "a comprehensive framework of solutions" next year.