Pacific Islanders Lead Nansen Initiative Consultation on Cross-Border Displacement from Natural Disasters and Climate Change

Like its neighbors in the Pacific, the Cook Islands is no stranger to severe natural disasters. Pacific island countries are highly susceptible to increasingly frequent and extreme events, such as cyclones, tsunamis and landslides, as well as the slower-onset effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increased temperatures and coastal erosion.

Last week I was privileged to attend the first-ever regional consultation of the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, held in the Cook Islands in the Pacific. The consultation, hosted by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, brought together government officials from ten Pacific countries, as well as representatives from regional and international organizations, academia and civil society.

The issue of cross-border migration is always a sensitive one, and even more so when the prospective, permanent movement of whole communities is contemplated. While a key message from the meeting was that Pacific peoples wish to remain in their homes for as long as possible, there was recognition that some displacement and migration is inevitable. As the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands observed: ‘If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail.’

But while Pacific island countries are some of the most vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change, especially in the longer-term, there was a striking focus on ‘self-help’: the need to strengthen community resilience, raise awareness and increase preparedness. Participants identified initiatives at the community, national, regional and international levels that would facilitate adaptation and enable people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, while also developing strategies to enhance mobility for those who wished to move.

A set of action points was presented to Pacific leaders, who undertook to take them to other regional fora and to work towards realizing concrete outcomes.

Participants identified the need to educate both at-risk and potential host communities about the prospect of population movements, and to ensure that communities could participate fully in consultations about possible relocation strategies. They noted that a key challenge in the Pacific relates to customary land tenure and the shortage of alienable, freehold land, and that safeguards would need to be developed to prevent and solve conflicts over land and resources.

Participants noted the importance of training and education within their countries to equip people with the skills to work abroad, as well as to contribute to their own society while they remained there. In this regard, they encouraged States to review their admission and immigration policies and examine their citizenship laws to ensure that dual nationality was permitted, to help safeguard the cultural identity of those who migrate on a permanent basis.

It was notable, although not at all surprising to those who know the region, that the idea of a new ‘climate refugee’ treaty was never raised as a desirable option. While this is an oft-championed outcome within academic discourse (predominantly in Europe and North America, but also in Australia), it is wholly removed from the needs and desires of the Pacific peoples for whom it is assumed to be a solution. The ‘climate refugee’ framework has no purchase in the Pacific because it does not fit with the kind of movement we are likely to see, nor the self-help approach that Pacific peoples advocate.

It is essential to listen to what Pacific islanders themselves are calling for, rather than to assume what they need. Too often the ‘solutions’ thought up by the international community do not match the identified needs on the ground, and if we fail to listen, then we will end up with ill-fitting policies and mechanisms. As one participant noted, the international community can help to provide the ingredients, but not the recipe.

Indeed, the importance of holding the meeting within the Pacific region cannot be underestimated. Those who came across the world could see just how vulnerable atolls are to sea-level rise, and could get a sense of the great cultural and linguistic diversity of Pacific islanders. This was not a meeting in which the Pacific featured as an abstract, stereotypical example but as the lived experiences, concerns and ideas of Pacific peoples. Government ministers talked movingly about their personal experiences of searching for missing relatives in the wake of natural disasters. An elderly Banaban woman’s memories of her relocation to Fiji as an eight-year-old child revealed the on-going trauma of displacement when it is not properly planned. The poignancy of individual experiences of tsunamis and cyclones was brought home by the fact we were next to the sea and could see the tsunami evacuation route signs dotted along the island’s coastline. Here, the Pacific was the center, not Geneva or New York.

The consultation in and on the Pacific brought to life issues which may be difficult to grasp without having experienced first-hand life on a small atoll. The diversity of culture, the sense of Pacific community and solidarity, the commonality of experience and the willingness to learn and share were striking. This is a great strength of the Nansen Initiative’s regional consultation approach. Without a systematic approach like this, there is a risk that regional concerns become diluted or homogenized to some abstract ‘universal’ experience, and with the loss of nuance comes the loss of appropriate interventions.