10 Nov 2022

COP27: Cut emissions or face tens of millions of climate refugees - Bahamas PM

5:01 pm on 10 November 2022
Coastal homes in Tuvalu, Funafuti pictured on November 28, 2019. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people has been classified as "extremely vulnerable" to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme due to rising sea levels.

Coastal homes in Tuvalu Funafuti pictured on November 28, 2019. The low-lying South Pacific island nation has been classified as "extremely vulnerable" to climate change due to rising sea levels. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A leading expert on climate refugees says the world needs to come to grips with the issue to avoid chaos at countries' borders.

Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis told the COP27 UN climate conference in Egypt overnight that rich countries must slash climate emissions or eventually face dealing with potentially tens of millions of climate refugees.

It is a scenario that New Zealand may have to grapple with, as Pacific nations are particularly susceptible to sea level rise and inundation from increasingly severe storms.

University of New South Wales Professor Jane McAdam said there was still time to plan.

"And if we don't seize that then yes, we will see ad hoc movements, we will see more chaotic responses as countries scramble to deal with people crossing borders."

Minister of Climate Change James Shaw said the government has been working for a number of years on the issue - but the most important thing was to try to ensure that people can stay in their homes.

There was money in New Zealand's climate finance budget for spending in the Pacific on resilience, and to help with relocation, he said.

Some Pacific people would move to New Zealand and there was a great risk that within a few generations culture and language could be lost, Shaw said.

"It's quite important for us to have a good receiving environment if we end up in a situation where we've got large populations moving [here]."

Minister of Immigration Michael Wood said he recognised that sadly for the Pacific it would become a reality that some people might have to leave their ancestral homes.

"New Zealand does have a role and responsibility to work with our partners there.

"It's a sensitive issue for those countries, it is one that we will work through carefully with them."

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said currently there were no plans to amend immigration settings to address climate mobility and the focus was working with New Zealand's Pacific partners.

"However, part of being ready for the impacts of climate change would be to consider whether Aotearoa New Zealand's immigration policies were sufficiently flexible to form part of a future solution if resettlement or migration became necessary," they said.

The spokesperson said multi-year research was being commissioned under Aotearoa New Zealand's action plan "to better understand climate migration trends, and the impact on communities in the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand".

Climate Change Minister James Shaw speaks to media at Owhio Bay, which has been slammed by repeated storms, after revealing the National Adaptation Plan

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said there is money in New Zealand's climate finance budget for spending in the Pacific on resilience, and to help with relocation. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

'There is a tipping point'

McAdam said most climate migration currently was people moving within their own country - people want to stay close to home.

Internal planned relocation was already happening in Fiji, she said.

"There is a tipping point where that won't be sustainable, where some areas of land may become completely uninhabitable."

For Pacific peoples, home was not just where they lived, it was fundamental to identity, ancestry and future, she said.

She expected most migration from the Pacific would be in line with how it happened now - for example, New Zealand's Pacific employment scheme.

"These are labour mobility schemes, but at the same time people in the Pacific will say 'It's also because the future impacts of climate change and disasters in my country that are behind why I might want to move somewhere else'.

"But it gives people the choice to chose when they go, where they go, and to take family members with them."

The now abandoned Nabavatu Village in Dreketi, Macuata on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The now abandoned Nabavatu Village in Dreketi, Macuata on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu. Photo: Supplied

No official 'climate refugee' category

McAdam said there was not much data on the issue because a "climate refugee" category did not exist in law - so there was no official means of counting things like visa applications.

There had been a number of cases where people from the Pacific have tried to claim asylum in New Zealand because of the anticipated impacts of climate change in their home country, she said.

A well-known one was a man from Kiribati who claimed asylum, with the matter going to the UN Human Rights Committee, ultimately being unsuccessful, she said.

"On the facts of that case there was no protection claim founded.

"But it's clear that as a matter of legal principle states do have obligations not to send people back to deleterious impacts of climate change that would amount to arbitrary depravation of life or cumulatively constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

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