Tuvaluans don't want to be called refugees | Pacific Beat

Tuvaluans don't want to be called refugees

Tuvaluans don't want to be called refugees

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:35 AEDT

Earlier on Pacific Beat we spoke with Professor Jane McAdam of the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales about Climate change and legal implications associated with this issue.

She spoke to us ahead of a major meeting at Colombia University in the United States later this month.

The theme of the conference is "Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate."

And one issue which will certainly be raised during the meeting is the concept of so called Environmental Refugees,

But how do people from the Pacific islands, some of whom are already feeling the brunt of rising sea levels, feel about this term, Environmental Refugees?.

It's often been said that the people of Tuvalu will become the world's first climate or environment refugees...so what do they think?

Presenter: Heather Jarvis

Speaker: Tapugao Falefou, the Permanent secretary for foreign affairs, Trade, Tourism, Environment and Labour in Tuvalu

FALEFOU: At the outset we see it as a negative connotation of the use of the word, refugees. The relocation was a movement of people out of for instance Tuvalu because of the effect of climate change. That does not go along with the definition of the word, refugees, which is defined in the Refugee Convention.

JARVIS: Which really describes people who are fleeing persecution or wars or that kind of thing, which is obviously not happening in Tuvalu?

FALEFOU: Exactly, and that is why we don't prefer the use of term, refugees, because refugees as we know under the 1951 Refugee Convention, it talks about the movement of people because of fear, well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality and so forth. And the effect of climate change of course is not that, Tuvalu or the people of Tuvalu move out of Tuvalu because of fear of persecution, and that is why we see the use of the word, refugees or climate refugees, as improper.

JARVIS: So what do you think should be used to describe people in your situation like the people of Tuvalu or Kiribati or other islands or atolls are sort of under threat from rising sea levels and so on?

FALEFOU: Well we can look at the rationale behind the movement of people out of countries that is caused by the effect of climate change. And for the case of people like from Tuvalu moving out of Tuvalu because of climate change, perhaps the most appropriate word we can use is climate change resettlers, to resettle the people of Tuvalu to a better place that is not affected by the effect of climate change. A word that can actually explain the situation or the reasons why people move, instead of using the word, refugee, which is a term that was specifically used for those compelled to move out of a country because of fear of persecution, that is not the case for people moving out of Tuvalu.

JARVIS: If you look at even that word, refugee, it's a very emotive word isn't it? It brings up a whole lot of feelings and emotions when you hear it. As you say you prefer to hear the term, climate resettlement. I'm wondering why you think that the term, climate refugee, has been adopted? Is it because people want to actually get a sense of urgency across? I mean are people using it for their own ends do you think?

FALEFOU: Of course yes because refugees not only that people move out of a country because of fear, but because they don't want to return to their country. In the case of Tuvalu, perhaps when people move out of Tuvalu because of climate change it doesn't mean that they don't want to return to Tuvalu. They want to move obviously because there's no other place for them to live. So those are the negative connotations of the word, refugee, if we look at the term, refugee, from the outset. And that does not actually go along with the rationale of people moving out because of climate change.

JARVIS: We featured an interview here on the program yesterday Mr Falefou, which was with a Professor Jane McAdam from the Faculty of Law in New South Wales. She's done a lot of research into legal ramifications of all of this. She mentioned quite a number of things, but one of the first things she said was that people who are forced to leave their homeland for whatever reason would rather be seen as a skilled migrant who can move with dignity?

FALEFOU: Well if we take the use of the word, skilled migrant, that may not actually reflect the actual status of why or the reason why people move out of a country that is being affected by the effect of climate change, because obviously not all of those migrants are skilled migrants. And therefore the use of the word, skilled migrants, may not be the right term as far as I can see. And that's why I'd rather use a more general term like climate change resettlement, because everybody look at it and they know what the word means, because people move or are being resettled due to the effect of climate change.

JARVIS: Of course climate change isn't the only issue affecting small islands, overcrowding is a problem as well. Where does that fit into the picture when it comes to migration and resettlement?

FALEFOU: Well overcrowding of course is an obvious problem to most if not all countries, especially small island countries. But what we have to be clear about, it's not to confuse a movement of people because of a need to look for a better life, which is obviously migration, and the movement of people due to fear of climate change. And that's why I rather prefer to provide a more specific term for those who will be moving due to climate change, and that's why I use the word, resettlement.

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