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Climate change refugees or seekers of better economic opportunities?



Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

It’s virtually impossible to live in the islands without hearing the word “diaspora” among foreigners. Diaspora itself is a biblical term, originally referring to the scattering of Jews out of Israel and into the lands of the Gentiles, but in the centuries since the Old Testament came to written, a “diaspora” essentially means a group of people living outside their homeland.


In other words, a diaspora occurs when a lot of people leave home.

The term typically comes up in the Pacific Islands when a bunch of foreign lawyers gulp down several cheap beers and start to talk amongst themselves about the conditions they have both created and been charged with mitigating.


I’m not above the fray; in numerous employment cover letters I have referred to the “triumvirate of the diaspora,” or the three reasons while people leave: education, employment, and health care.


Movement is a basic part of the human condition, which everyone in the world understands. Just ask anyone in the US whose family is from West Virginia or eastern Kentucky.


For over a decade now, at least one United Nations agency has recognized a fourth reason for leaving: environmental degradation, or rising sea levels that destroy a homeland, thereby prompting people to flee. Or at least leave. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that 20 million people leave home each year due to “abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones.”


In other words, the latest cause of the island diaspora is climate mobility, creating what some call “Climate Refugees.” There’s even a non-profit that calls itself that.


There’s just one problem: those seeking a better environment are not refugees. And Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister agrees.


Let me explain. I apologize for getting technical.


“Refugee” has a specific meaning under both international law and the domestic laws of most nations.


A refugee is someone outside of his or her homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is unable or unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of his or her home country, or to return there, out of fear of persecution.


If you are a refugee, in other words, you fear persecution based on those specific factors, and fear that your government is either unwilling or unable to protect you from itself or from segments of society that wish you harm.


I’ll put it more bluntly. Persecution means violence, like family members being murdered, your house being firebombed, or you being stopped from doing anything that allows you to make a living while “The State” is either doing the damage or turning a blind eye to those that are.


Granted, it never feels like your government is trying to protect you, but being a citizen entails certain rights within your nation, like the rule of law.


One on hand, it’s a hair-splitting distinction between refugees and better climate-seekers, as environmental degradation and oppression often overlap. It’s not exactly a secret that vulnerable people get taken advantage of.


Your government being indifferent about opportunity and enacting bad policies doesn’t count, however, and vulnerability because of the environment and vulnerability because of cruelty are very different things.


Which brings us to Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his video address to COP26, the global meeting on climate change that took place in Glasgow, Scotland last fall.


In case you don’t remember, he presented a speech via video, apparently with dramatic background music, standing in knee deep water to illustrate rising sea levels.


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The global media loved the image. There was little to dislike. He was charismatic, articulate, and delivered a compelling message about his homeland being destroyed.


The same media, however, did not pay much attention to what he actually said, even though he may have foreshadowed what the world could face with climate migration when he said that Tuvalu will retain territorial sovereignty over its islands, even if those islands happen to be underwater and all of its citizens leave.


Mr. Kofe is correct. This is uncharted territory. The international community, whatever that may be, and individual nations themselves have yet to consider if a nation can exercise sovereignty over a territory that may not exist. It’s a new question as to how such a nation can in fact exercise that sovereignty.


Consider one example of global statecraft: the United Nations Convention on the law of the Seas. Tuvalu joined this agreement in 2002. The Law of the Sea establishes a low-water line as the start of maritime territory. In the case of atolls and islands surrounded by reefs, the baseline is the low-water line on the seaward side of reefs. The same agreements established seabed limits based on geographic underwater structures, but if there is no land, can there be sea territory? We have as yet to see.


Personally, I encourage the Small Island Developing States, or Big Ocean Developing States as I prefer to call them, to assert their territorial sovereignty, but it’s an open question as to how they might do that, especially in maritime claims with no precedent to enforce and no navy with which to enforce them.


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But in the meantime, island governments, their benefactor nations, and inter-governmental organizations have some reckoning to do as to why for decades there has been an outflow of people.


Nations such as Tuvalu lack the easy immigration that the Compacts of Free Association in Micronesia have provided.


But let’s consider Micronesia. While the U.S. continues to struggle to find its position in the Pacific, since the various COFAs have become reality, one thing is clear.


There may be a diaspora, but there are no refugees.


Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com.



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