A few months ago, the Guardian published an online article entitled “Don’t call them ‘refugees’: why climate-change victims need a different label”. In the article, it is outlined how inhabitants of the Pacific island nations Kiribati and Tuvalu fear that they may be subjected to forced migration in the foreseeable future due to the impact of climate change on their countries – which in the media have already been fancily labelled the “sinking islands”. As Taylor (1994) puts it rather bluntly, both countries may soon “join Atlantis at the bottom of the sea”.
Of all Pacific island nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu are particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. The height of their land rarely exceeds 2 metres, making them susceptible to wave damage. Moreover, they possess limited fresh water reserves, which are threatened by depletion through drought and by contamination from salt water. The dramatic result of this is that Kiribati and Tuvalu may be the first sovereign countries to become extinct.
On a more positive note, the governments of Kiribati and Tuvalu have shown their willingness to protect their citizens against environmental dangers. As such, the resettlement of the complete population of both countries elsewhere is being considered seriously. As President Anote Tong of Kiribati stated: “We want to begin that [migration] now, and do it over the next twenty, thirty or forty years, rather than merely, in fifty to sixty years’ time, simply come looking for somewhere to settle our one hundred thousand people because they can no longer live in Kiribati, because they will either be dead or drown. We begin the process now, it’s a win-win for all and very painless, but I think if we come as refugees, in fifty to sixty years’ time, I think they would become a football to be kicked around.”
In 2012, Kiribati started negotiations with Fiji to buy land on one of its islands in case the Kiribati archipelago were to submerge. Similarly, Tuvalu has looked into the options of buying land from New Zealand, Australia or Niue. Indeed, notwithstanding the significant costs involved, bilateral migration deals with other countries in the Pacific might present the best option for both countries if the potentially detrimental effects of climate change persist.
At the same time, “many Pacific islanders explicitly reject the idea of “climate refugee” status”. From the outset, it ought to be remembered that as a matter of law, the term ‘refugee’ does not cover those fleeing from the consequences of climate change. Indeed, climate change is not a legal ground on which a well-founded fear of persecution can be based for the sake of triggering refugee protection. Nevertheless, the rejection by i-Kiribati and Tuvaluan people of the label ‘refugee’ is not so much based on legal considerations, but rather on the negative connotation that the term holds.
Thus, the term ‘refugee’ is connected with the images of guarded camps and distressed persons. In particular in the Pacific, refugees are seen as desperate persons crossing the ocean in small and unreliable boats to seek protection in Australia. Ironically, these refugees often end up in deplorable detention centres on the islands of Nauru or Manus (Papua New Guinea). In the Pacific region, the term ‘refugee’ has consequently become intricately connected with desperation and drama.
For the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu, who have no desire to escape from their countries but rather want to escape with their countries, the label ‘refugees’ thus seems unsuited. The refugee label is connected with victimhood, helplessness, a lack of agency and – perhaps most pressingly – a lack of dignity. Tuvaluans and i-Kiribati people, on the other hand, identify themselves as active and proud members of a valuable community – one they wish to preserve. As McAdam (2009) puts it, “[p]eople are not fleeing, but they are reluctantly recognising that at some point in the future their home may no longer be able to sustain them”.
Whilst these considerations are perfectly understandable, they are worrying at the same time. The international legal system of refugee protection, which was originally set up from a humanitarian ideal of providing basic protections to those in dire need, is apparently becoming a system with which certain groups of migrants do not wish to be associated. Whilst the argument that climate change ought to be a basis on which refugee protection duties are owed is legally difficult to sustain (and has also been rejected in court), it is striking to note that a significant section of the i-Kiribati and Tuvaluan population does not even wish to make that claim. Rather, they disassociate themselves from refugees by stating that they want to migrate with dignity – thereby non-intentionally implying that those migrants entitled to refugee protection are not able to do so.
This is alarming, to say the least. To be a refugee is no longer primarily associated with owing protection, but rather with helplessness and a lack of dignity. The willingness of ‘climate migrants’ to maintain the distinction between ‘refugees’ and climate ‘non-refugees’, albeit legally correct, reaffirms the notion that refugee status is increasingly not regarded as an option for those who want to migrate “with dignity”. As a consequence, the debate about protection in the face of climate change may have the unintentional side-effect of marginalising those entitled to claim refugee status as helpless victims who have lost their dignity, agency and identity in the process of claiming such protection. Climate change has therefore not only sparked off a debate on the resulting migration of entire populations, but also provides food for thought when considering the meaning of, and implications inherent to, contemporary refugee protection.