Climate Change Refugees
Given the contemporary discussion about refugees, which focuses primarily on those who have been forced from their homes because of conflict or persecution, it is important to evaluate other push factors for refugees around the world. Here are five facts you should know about Vanuatuan refugees — the first climate change refugee.

  1. Officially, Vanuatu has no refugees, either ingoing or outgoing.
    According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which provides the international legal definition of refugee and establishes states’ responsibilities to them, Vanuatu is not home to any refugees. Vanuatu’s official refugee population reached a high in 2010, with a total refugee population of four.
  2. However, Vanuatu is home to the world’s first “climate change refugees.”
    In 2005, the U.N. Environment Programme reported the forced inland movement of nearly 100 villagers in the province of Tegua in northern Vanuatu, citing the people as the world’s first climate change refugees. People in Vanuatu inhabit 65 of the 80 islands in the archipelago, and many live in coastal cities or villages.
    Because most of the infrastructure of small island nations is located along shallow coasts, countries like Vanuatu are vulnerable to rising sea levels and ever-increasing tropical storms. Since 2005, thousands of Pacific islanders, such as those from Kiribati, have been forced to move to larger islands like Fiji, where they often experience difficulty integrating into society.
  3. This may be just the beginning.
    A 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that climate change could cause sea levels to rise by as much as 3 feet by 2100. For low-lying island nations, this change could be catastrophic. In Vanuatu, a rise in sea level of this proportion would require the forced relocation of thousands. And Vanuatu wouldn’t be alone; its population of 277,000 represents just a small portion of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who live along coasts.
  4. Open-Source data provides hope and information for potential climate change refugees. Collaboration between the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the governments of Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea created The Vanuatu Globe. This open-source data platform maps low-lying coastal areas to help citizens and governments alike identify areas facing the greatest risk of coastal flooding from rising sea levels.
    Over 1,000 people accessed the data set within days of Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. The platform aided recovery efforts and initiatives to improve infrastructure and prevent future devastation.
  5. Work is being done to prepare in Vanuatu and elsewhere.
    The Capacity Building for the Development of Adaptation Measures in Pacific Island Countries Program, established in 2002, represents just one of many initiatives working with island nations to reinforce infrastructure and make sound development decisions under the looming threat of climate change. Capacity-building programs such as this, complemented by expanded access to mapping data, will help citizens and leaders prepare for large-scale environmental shifts.

Laurel Klafehn

Photo: Flickr