If the impacts of climate change drive people from their homes, what happens to their relationship with their home country? 

A ground-breaking new report provides the first in-depth look at the legal risks of statelessness and nationality loss in the context of climate change in the Pacific. It finds that under current laws, some Pacific Islanders who move abroad permanently risk losing their citizenship, or the ability to pass it on to their children.

The Future of Nationality in the Pacific: Preventing Statelessness and Nationality Loss in the context of Climate Change is published today by three partnering institutions – the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne, and the University of Technology Sydney. 

Disasters and other impacts of climate change are already displacing millions of people each year. Researchers Michelle Foster, Nicola Hard, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam zero in on Pacific countries and territories, where climate change poses an increasing threat to livelihoods, security and well-being.

Their report recommends steps to safeguard nationality rights and to future-proof the legal connection between Pacific Islanders and their homes. 

Most research on statelessness and climate change in the Pacific has focused on whether, if a country were submerged, statehood would survive. In practice, though, people will likely have left the country long before that kind of territory loss occurs. The Future of Nationality in the Pacific report sets out the need for innovative approaches to citizenship to protect connections between people and place, now and into the future. 

Some Pacific Island countries are preparing for virtual statehood. Tuvalu’s 2021 Future Now Project (Te Ataeao Nei Project) sets out a plan to digitise all government services and archive Tuvalu’s history and culture to create a ‘digital nation’ that would retain its sovereignty, even if the entire population were to move to other countries.

This new report recommends that all Pacific Island countries adopt specific legal safeguards against statelessness to preserve the nationality rights of their citizens, including by amending their laws to prevent loss of nationality from residence abroad, and to grant citizenship to stateless children born overseas. 

Legislating to address these and other concerns would enable Pacific Island countries to protect their people from the risks of statelessness now and into the future.

Professor Michelle Foster, Director of the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, says, ‘Nationality law is a formal means of holding on to your identity – and with it, entitlements such as voting or standing for office, and, ultimately, self-determination. The ability to retain your citizenship while living elsewhere, and to pass it down to your children, plays a powerful role in ongoing connection to home.’ 

Professor Jane McAdam AO, Director of Kaldor Centre, says, ‘Climate change presents a range of grave threats to Pacific Island countries. Our research focuses on one area that goes to the core of community and identity for Pacific Islanders, and we propose practical measures that Pacific Island countries can take to protect the citizenship and nationality rights of their peoples.’

Professor Hélène Lambert, from the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, notes, ‘We examined the nationality and citizenship laws of 23 Pacific countries and found a mixed picture. Our report respectfully acknowledges the agency of Pacific countries in preparing for the impacts of climate change, and it is in this spirit that we make some recommendations for improvements.’

This research was funded by the Australian Research Council, and it was undertaken by a cross-university team comprising Michelle Foster and Nicola Hard (University of Melbourne), Hélène Lambert (UTS) and Jane McAdam (UNSW).

Read the full report: The Future of Nationality in the Pacific: Preventing Statelessness and Nationality Loss in the context of Climate Change