Pacific Islanders face a more uncertain future as global warming drives more intense or frequent king tides, cyclones, drought, floods and rising seas that will likely force many people from their homes.

Australia cannot afford to ignore the looming displacement, according to ‘Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Action’. This new policy brief from UNSW’s Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law argues that while Australia cannot stop displacement altogether, the government can make policy changes now to reduce its scale and impact in the Pacific region. The brief is co-authored by Centre Director Jane McAdam and the Lowy Institute's Jonathan Pryke.

Already disasters displace many more people within their countries each year than conflict, and the Asia-Pacific region is the hardest hit. Between 2008 and 2018, this region alone saw more than 80% of all new global displacement.

As COVID-19 reshapes Australia’s interactions with the world, the government’s response needs to include a range of well-informed, complementary policies to tackle the climate crisis. The most important action will be curbing greenhouse gas emissions domestically. But in the Pacific, where geopolitics is already powering Australia’s Pacific Step-up program, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development strategies will need to work hand-in-hand with plans that enable people to move before disaster strikes.

'Most Pacific Islanders want to remain in their homes,' says Professor McAdam, who is globally renowned for her research conceptualising ‘climate change-related displacement’ in international law. 'That’s why preventative measures are so important.'

Yet a dramatic youth bulge in many Pacific countries, alongside thin employment opportunities being further eroded by the COVID-19 crisis, will change people’s need, ability and desire to move – and that’s why proactive programs are vital.

Health-safe migration employment programs are a financial win-win for Australia and the Pacific, a boon for economies devastated by the pandemic. Pryke, the director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program, has shown that if only 1% of the Pacific’s population were permitted to work permanently in Australia, benefits for the Pacific would be more than Australia’s aid contribution.

The policy brief urges Australia to develop a suite of smarter temporary, seasonal and long-term migration programs. Some such programs already reliably fill labour gaps for Australian businesses plus provide for Pacific workers and, via remittances, their families. In this way, migration can enhance the resilience of those who move, as well as those who stay behind.

'This is happening now with the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), and we hope and expect these schemes will grow,' Pryke says. 'But they can also be improved – the PLS needs to offer a pathway to permanent residency if it’s really going to help Islanders at risk from the impacts of global warming.'

Australia should also work towards creating bilateral or regional plans to help Pacific Islanders move more freely, and consider developing a special humanitarian visa for people whose lives are at risk on account of disasters or the impacts of climate change. The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently stated that people whose lives are threatened by the adverse effects of climate change may be owed protection under international law, and McAdam notes that if governments don’t determine a way forward, courts will.

The answer lies in enhancing mobility for Pacific peoples, the authors say. In this way, Australia can simultaneously create mutual economic benefits, provide a release valve for communities facing demographic, environmental and financial challenges, and reduce vulnerability to the impacts of disasters and climate change in Pacific countries.

'Responding to displacement is not just a humanitarian imperative,' the policy brief says, 'but it is also in Australia’s national interest.'

Read ‘Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Action’.

Listen to a podcast interview with the authors.

UNSW Media