The committee heard that, once the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty comes into force, Tuvaluans will have access to a special mobility pathway enabling them to live, study and work in Australia.

Professor McAdam, a globally recognised expert on displacement in the context of climate change, was instrumental in developing the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility and co-authored the 2023 Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility, a toolkit for developing rights-based responses to climate displacement.

‘For many years I’ve been calling on the Australian government to create clear mobility pathways for Pacific communities affected by the adverse impacts of climate change and disasters,’ McAdam said.

‘While there are a range schemes in the Pacific that facilitate mobility generally, the Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union is the first to do so specifically in the context of climate change.’

She gave evidence alongside Taukiei Kitara, an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Cultural and Environmental Research, who called for appropriate support for Tuvaluans who choose to migrate to Australia, as well as for the Tuvaluan diaspora who will support them on arrival.

‘The Tuvaluan concept of falepili means looking after those who are in need without any expectation of receiving a benefit in return,’ Kitara said. ‘The Tuvaluan community in Australia will be exercising this authentic version of falepili when new arrivals from Tuvalu choose to migrate.

‘Tuvaluan migrants to Australia must be well supported before departure to understand rights and social opportunities, custom [and] cost of living … They will also need support on arrival, in particular with respect to access to housing, education, health care and work.’

Professor McAdam noted that experiences of Pacific migration to New Zealand shows that ‘very often that first-level support when people arrive is provided by the existing diaspora.

‘Sometimes that can place quite significant economic burdens on groups already here. I don't think we should underestimate what that might take,’ McAdam said.

What support will the Falepili Union provide?

The treaty’s recently released Explanatory Memorandum makes clear that Tuvaluans who take up the visas ‘would be permanent residents from day one’, explained Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Assistant Secretary Celeste Powell.

Visa holders would have the right to study at schools and universities with the same fee subsidies as Australian citizens, to enrol in Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and to travel freely to and from Australia. The scheme will be open to all Tuvaluans, including those with disabilities and special needs.

The Explanatory Memorandum confirms that Australia will provide ‘support for applicants to find work in Australia and to help that growing diaspora retain a connection to culture and improve settlement outcomes’, said DFAT First Assistant Secretary Jan Hutton.

Taukiei Kitara also raised the importance of encouraging circular and return migration to support communities who remain in Tuvalu.

‘The Falepili Union treaty should not be understood as a one-way exit strategy for vulnerable climate migrants,’ he said.

‘Australia should assist Tuvalu in developing policies to ensure that migration to Australia does not result in a brain drain or depopulation, which in a country of roughly 11,000 or more is a real risk,’ Kitara said.

While the treaty has an initial allocation of 280 visas a year, DFAT’s Powell said it would provide for ‘the capacity to adjust that as needed, if Tuvalu is concerned about the numbers of people who are leaving and staying away rather than those who are taking up the opportunity temporarily and then returning to Tuvalu’.

‘We anticipate that we will develop the settings of that pathway with the Tuvalu government in a way that will facilitate the movement back and forth of Tuvaluans between Australia and Tuvalu,’ Powell added.

‘As part of that, we hope that Tuvaluans accessing that pathway will be able to take back to Tuvalu the skills and experience they gain in Australia, whether it’s through work, whether it’s through study, whether it, quite frankly, is through improved health outcomes. Remittances will be an important aspect of that.’

Other pathways to protection

Government support at settlement forms part of a broader commitment to ‘human mobility with dignity’ and ‘migration as adaptation’ in the context of climate change.

Migration as adaptation means that – when appropriately managed and supported – migration can be a win-win, benefiting migrants, the countries to which they move, and the communities who stay behind. These ideas are explored further in the Kaldor Centre’s Climate Mobility Hub.

While the Falepili Union will provide practical, dignified options for some people who may wish to move, there is still much more to be done.

This is especially the case when it comes to providing pathways to legal protection for those displaced across international borders in part due to the impacts of climate change.

That is why Professor McAdam, alongside a group of international experts, is developing guidance to show decision-makers how existing principles of refugee and human rights law can be applied to provide protection when climate change and disasters contribute to displacement. You can read more about the initiative here.

For more information, visit the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.