Relocation Across Borders: A Prescient Warning in the Pacific

Editor's Note: This piece is adapted from the author’s article, 'Caught Between Homelands,’ which originally appeared in Inside Story.

The possibility of moving entire Pacific island communities is often raised in discussions about the impacts of climate change, but it is usually assumed to be a novel, even futuristic idea. However, almost 70 years ago, in quite different circumstances, two island communities were relocated across international borders to new homes in other Pacific islands. In December 1945 the population of the island of Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) in present-day Kiribati was moved to Rabi island in Fiji on account of on-going phosphate mining by the British Phosphate Commission, a joint British, Australian and New Zealand enterprise. Two years later, in October 1947, part of the population of Vaitupu, an island of present-day Tuvalu, bought and settled another Fijian island, Kioa, coincidentally close to Rabi.


A major difference between the two cases, which has undoubtedly impacted enormously on the subsequent development of the two communities, is the degree of choice involved. The Banabans say they were forced to move, whereas the Vaitupuans made the decision themselves. When I recently interviewed some of the original settlers and their descendents on Rabi and Kioa, they offered important insights into the potential effects of any future efforts to resettle Pacific populations. Their experiences provide some of the best evidence we have about the likely conceptual and pragmatic challenges of relocation in the context of climate change.


But the migrations to Rabi and Kioa are rare cases of whole communities moving to “empty islands” in another country to create a new home, administered by a community-run local council.


Mobility is a feature of Pacific history. For centuries, islanders have moved in response to changing environmental, political or social conditions. During the colonial period, the government of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (which became Kiribati and Tuvalu in the late 1970s) pursued a formal policy of resettlement because of “land hunger”. Groups of islanders were sent to “colonise” parts of the Solomon Islands, for example, where they gradually integrated into the local community. But the migrations to Rabi and Kioa are rare cases of whole communities moving to “empty islands” in another country to create a new home, administered by a community-run local council.


Soon after A-grade phosphate was discovered on Ocean Island in 1900, mining began. Within a decade, the Pacific Phosphate Company (later the British Phosphate Commission) was agitating to have the Banabans relocated from their homeland so that the island could be mined more efficiently and extensively. By the time mining operations ceased in 1979, twenty-one million tons of phosphate had been removed – thirteen million tons of it scattered across the farms of Australia. The Banabans received a 15 per cent share of the profit.


Almost all of the official records in these early years acknowledged the Banabans’ right to remain in their traditional homeland and benefit from the proceeds of any resources taken. However, in the communication that was to secure their fate, the colonial administration noted that while it would be “repugnant” to “evict a native tribe” simply “to afford wider opportunity of gain to a rich commercial corporation,” in this case the greater good of the empire was at stake. “Indeed,” wrote Britain’s high commissioner for the Western Pacific, C.H. Rodwell, in 1919, “the interests of the Empire seem to demand that the process of development on Ocean Island should be allowed to continue until the whole island is worked out.”


Yet it was not until after the Japanese occupation of the Ocean Island in World War Two that the Banabans finally moved. They were informed by the colonial authorities that their homeland had been rendered uninhabitable and another island had been found for them in Fiji – Rabi.


In fact, the colonial government had purchased Rabi in 1942 with the proceeds of Banaban mining royalties, following protracted negotiations with Banaban elders. Although the elders had resisted relocation for decades, in 1940 they began to agitate for a “new home, Banaba No. 2”. They were worried that “the younger generation of Banabans was growing up in too Europeanised an atmosphere and that, if they were to preserve their racial identity and culture, it was necessary to continue that culture elsewhere.” For this reason, they desired a new home where they could “resume native cultivation, mat-making and fishing.” They stressed that this new place would not be a replacement for Banaba, but rather a second home.


The majority of the population was relocated to Rabi in December 1945. They landed in the middle of hurricane season and had to live in canvas tents beside the beach, with only two months’ rations and little knowledge of how to plant the island and become self-sufficient. The move was to be for a two-year trial period, and if they then chose to return to Banaba they could do so free of charge. The colonial administrators thought it unlikely that they would choose to remain on Rabi permanently. The decision to grant the Banabans a degree of autonomy in managing their affairs on Rabi, with “as nearly as possible the same Government organisation and powers of self-Government as they enjoyed and were used to in Ocean Island”, was a key factor in their decision to stay.


The degree to which the Banabans gave informed consent to their ultimate move to Rabi is unclear. Banabans today say that they were misled about where they were going and what they could expect on arrival. They articulate a complex story about loss of homeland, deprivation of resources and the destruction of identity. At its heart, the story is about the loss of self-determination and the power to shape one’s destiny.


When Kiribati became independent in 1979, the colonial authorities determined that Banaba would remain part of its territory. This was (and remains) a point of great contention. Although Kiribati’s constitution gives the Banabans a special status, with guaranteed parliamentary representation, an “inalienable right to enter and reside in Banaba,” and a veto power over any constitutional amendments relating to their interests, most Banabans don’t regard themselves as I-Kiribati and view the relationship with Kiribati as an uneasy one. Many say that they should be independent, and from time to time they have agitated to have Banaba Island recognised as an independent State.


The story of Kioa is very different. Not only did the Kioans choose to move, but only a part of the community relocated. During World War Two, some of the men from the Kioans’ home island of Vaitupu in Tuvalu assisted the American military in the Pacific. At the end of the war, they decided to pool their war savings to invest for the benefit of the Vaitupuan community as a whole. A New Zealander who had been a school teacher on Vaitupu suggested that they purchase Kioa in Fiji as an insurance policy against overpopulation and land scarcity.


I spoke to the sole remaining survivor from the original group of settlers, eighty-eight-year-old Siapo Paka. She explained that at first, no one wanted to move. Eventually, thirty-five people volunteered to undertake the journey. In the first years of settlement, they had to clear the land, construct houses for each family group one by one, and eventually plant crops.


The Kioan story is one of community survival and pioneering spirit. They talk about the unity of their people and say that they have two homes — Kioa, the homeland, and Vaitupu, the motherland. Many people identify as both Fijian and Vaitupuan, whereas all the people I interviewed on Rabi described themselves as “Banaban”. Indeed, they typically distinguished between their formal citizenship (Fijian) and their sense of personal identity (Banaban). Perhaps because Vaitupu continues to sustain a large community, there is more openness among the Kioans towards adopting two identities.


Today, on both Kioa and Rabi, descendants of the relocated islanders acknowledge that their new Fijian homes provide abundant food and water, sustaining far larger populations than their home islands ever could. They also note that young people have access to better educational and economic opportunities.


However, founding narratives are central to the creation and maintenance of identity, and the extent to which relocation is forced or voluntary has a major impact on how a community understands itself and its relationship to the world. Even though everyone I interviewed recognised that everyday life was better in Fiji, the Banaban story is still marked by a history of injustice. One interviewee described a “psyche of injustice” that has been “burned into our memories.”


It is not difficult to imagine how a similar story of injustice could develop now, in the context of climate change, if the inhabitants of small island states are resettled elsewhere without extensive prior consultation, negotiation and compensation. The element of coercion is likely to entrench a sense of victimhood, injustice and disempowerment. If group relocations are to be considered in the future, then the rights of those affected (both in the sending and receiving countries) must be protected, and the legal status and organizational structures of the relocated group in the new country must be planned meticulously.