Tuvalu refugees represent some of the first waves of climate refugees. Huge numbers of Tuvaluans have been displaced after watching their island home between Hawaii and Australia be eroded by rising sea levels, intensifying natural disasters and soil degradation from contaminated groundwater. With no official recognition of climate refugees, Tuvaluans are increasingly threatened by the loss of their homes and hung out to dry by wealthy neighboring countries unwilling to accept their refugee status.

Here are ten facts about Tuvalu refugees:

  1. The island nation of Tuvalu has its highest elevations at just 15 feet above sea level. Experts predict that if sea levels were to rise by just three feet, many of the most populated areas of Tuvalu would be severely damaged, if not completely destroyed.
  2. Funafuti, the most populous island of Tuvalu, has suffered from severe droughts, water shortages and contaminated groundwater due to rising sea levels in recent years. The effects of these conditions on agriculture have translated to widespread malnourishment and displacement.
  3. Climate change experts predict that Tuvalu might become completely submerged underwater between 30-50 years from now if current trends continue. There is a general consensus that Tuvalu and similar nations will no longer exist by the end of the century.
  4. Already, one-fifth of Tuvalu’s population of 12,000 have left their homes to relocate to larger islands, where croplands are still fertile, or to neighboring New Zealand. As a result, the Tuvaluan community in New Zealand has nearly tripled since 1996.
  5. Life is difficult for Tuvalu refugees who have legally immigrated to New Zealand, with just more than half of Tuvaluan adults employed. Those who have immigrated illegally face even more economic and social hardships. Tuvaluan immigrants also worry about losing their cultural identity, as their children are born in highly developed host countries.
  6. Reports on climate trends have predicted 200 million “environmental refugees” by 2050, essentially one out of every 34 people on earth. Other estimates of future climate change migrants range from tens of thousands to one billion in the next 50 years.
  7. Climate refugees are not yet considered refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Consequently, there are “no current provisions for their protection and assistance” according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
  8. A landmark 2014 ruling by New Zealand’s Refugee Court granted legal residency to Tuvaluan Sigeo Alesana and his family after they appealed for asylum, citing climate change and overpopulation among the reasons that made life “untenable” on their native island. The court acknowledged the presence of climate change as a factor in the case, other factors affecting the family, such as an elderly mother who needed care, would have been enough to grant them asylum regardless. As a result, this case won’t open the doors for other climate change refugees from island nations. New Zealand has allocated Tuvalu only 75 annual slots in its visa program for Pacific workers.
  9. As the intensity of natural disasters and storms in the region increase, experts worry that if a natural disaster similar to Hurricane Katrina were to hit Tuvalu, it would cause irreversible damage. Tuvalu has few exportable natural resources and a GDP that relies heavily on the sale of collectible stamps and its internet domain suffix, .tv, nothing that could help its rebuild after large-scale damage.
  10. The Tuvaluan government has considered using its $100 million in reserves to purchase a new homeland for the small population, but legal and political obstacles threaten this plan. Moving could affect Tuvalu’s right to sovereignty as a nation, its fishing rights and the government’s ability to continue providing public services after financing such a move.


Based on these 10 facts about Tuvalu refugees, there are many hurdles for Tuvalu to cross both short term and long term. In the short run, Tuvalu should continue investing their reserves heavily in renewable freshwater storage systems and ongoing soil rehabilitation and protection programs. They should enlist foreign aid to help build one-time purchases, such as stabilizing bulwarks that prevent coastal erosion.

In the long run, Tuvalu should look to neighboring nations such as Kiribati who have established forward-thinking programs, such as their “Migration With Dignity” program, which involves training citizens as highly skilled workers who will then be welcomed into other countries because of their human capital when they are eventually forced to relocate. Tuvalu would do well to begin such programs as soon as possible, as the threats of climate change are more pressing and real for them than foreign leaders care to believe.

Saru Duckworth

Photo: Flickr