Climate change will drive migration on a massive scale in the coming years. Estimates of people fleeing natural disasters range from 25 million to 1 billion. The small island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific will be extinct by 2100. The government is trying to help the Kiribati refugees migrate with dignity, but their legal status is still in limbo.
- Most of the land of the Kiribati islands is less than two meters above sea level. It is therefore very vulnerable to rising sea levels due to climate change. Its residents may have to be the first climate change refugees.
- In 1999, two islands disappeared underwater. The nation is made up of 33 small islands, whose land is being swallowed by the ocean at a rate of almost 4 millimeters a year. According to the U.N., the entire nation will be submerged by 2100.
- Even before this drastic event occurs, changes in weather patterns are likely to produce Kiribati refugees. Droughts are becoming more severe, whilst rainfall is increasing, causing flooding. The oceans are acidifying, disturbing the delicate balance of coral reefs, whose marine ecosystems are the source of many people’s livelihoods.
- Freshwater supply is also problematic, as saltwater from high ocean tides is polluting wells and prolonged droughts are pushing water supplies to their limits. Many residents of South Tarawa, the island housing half of the country’s 100,000 people, are now completely reliant on rainwater.
- In 2003, the Kiribati government cooperated with the World Bank in the $17.7million Kiribati Adaptation Program. They built coastal sea walls, planted mangroves on the shores, developed water-management plans and invested in rainwater harvesting infrastructure, to postpone the effects of the rising ocean. The project has managed to protect one of 710 miles of Kiribati’s coastline.
- The former president, Anote Tong, started the “Migration with Dignity” program to ensure the Kiribati refugees will move to other states with dignity. The government has increased the level of qualifications available to citizens to those of Australia and New Zealand so that they are employable.
- The former president also bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, an island nation more than 1,000 miles away. This will act as a refuge for any Kiribati residents who will need to relocate.
- A Kiribati citizen applied for asylum in New Zealand in 2011. Four years later he was rejected and deported back to his sinking homeland.
- The 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugees as those “fleeing persecution at home.” As such, the Kiribati refugees are not protected by international law. “The truth is no one agency in the system because no one could have imagined this situation 60 years ago,” said José Riera, a senior advisor to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
- The Paris Agreement signed this past April does little to help climate change refugees. It didn’t resolve the issue of their legal status or mandate their protection.
It is hopeful that with the help of the government and international aid, each refugee, resident and the overall island will be preserved.