Tuvalu Should Deal with Climate Refugee Concerns

This Atoll nation must seek solutions regarding which mechanisms can be utilized to address the issue of climate refugees resulting from climate change looming over the Pacific island nations.

This Atoll nation must seek solutions regarding which mechanisms can be utilized to address the issue of climate refugees resulting from climate change looming over the Pacific island nations.

Climate change has brought about a phenomenon known as “climate refugees”. Although there is no consensus on the term itself, and debates still color its definition, some literature and media describe climate refugees as individuals forced to temporarily or permanently leave their homes due to direct impacts of climate change threatening their safety and existence.

The emergence of the term “climate refugees” is undoubtedly linked to the increasingly tangible effects of global climate change across various fronts. The rise in frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as rising sea levels, floods, droughts, storms, and other natural calamities has led to environmental damage, loss of resources and habitats, compelling people to abandon their regions.

From 2008 to 2023, more than 376 million people have become refugees due to disasters caused by climate change. This means, on average, one person has been displaced every second due to climate change. In 2022 alone, more than 36.2 million people were displaced due to climate-related natural disasters (Joanna, 2023). Projections from a London-based think tank for the next 30 years, starting from 2023, estimate that around 1.2 billion people will migrate due to the effects of climate change.

These facts validate the phenomenon and term “Climate Refugees,” indicating that refugee issues are caused not only by traditional issues like conflict or war, but also by contemporary issues such as climate change, which has been proven to contribute to the increasing number of global refugees.

Climate Crisis and Climate Refugees issue in Tuvalu

Although not significantly contributing to climate change, Tuvalu, a small country in the Pacific Islands, must face serious impacts from climate change. With much of its land sitting just two meters above sea level, most of Tuvalu’s territory could soon be submerged and uninhabitable due to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, in 2021 used his speech at the COP26 climate conference to highlight the urgency of climate change faced by Tuvalu. Standing in the seawater as a symbol of real climate change, he emphasized that climate change is a reality affecting everyone, particularly in Tuvalu, and Tuvalu not only needs sympathy but also concrete actions from the international community to address climate change.

“We stand here today, not as a plea for sympathy, but as a call to action. The rising waters that surround us are not just threatening our homes; they are a stark warning for the entire world. Tuvalu is on the front line of climate change, but we are not alone. The fate of Tuvalu is intertwined with the fate of every nation on this planet” Statement by Simon Kofe.

However, the rise in sea levels is just one of the many impacts of climate change in Tuvalu. This small country also faces other issues such as droughts, crop failures, food shortages, water crises, and health problems, all triggered by climate change.

This series of climate change-related problems presents the people of Tuvalu with a profoundly painful choice: whether to stay amid the threats of climate change or to move to a safer country. After living in Tuvalu for decades, migration remains the toughest option for its people. Yet, staying in an unsafe area that will soon disappear is also not the best choice.

A survey conducted by the UN University in 2015 indicated that 70% of families in Tuvalu would consider migrating if the impacts of climate change worsened in their country. From 2005 to 2015 alone, about 15% of Tuvalu’s population had already been displaced due to climate change, a figure expected to rise with ongoing climate issues.

The Tuvalu government has taken various steps regarding the issue of Climate Refugees. For example, Tuvalu has collaborated with Australia in an agreement where Australia promises to provide permanent residency to Tuvaluans affected by climate change. Australia offers opportunities for approximately 280 Tuvaluans each year to live, study, and work in the country.

However, climate refugee issues are complex. Climate refugees struggle to find places in their destination countries, especially in Pacific Island nations. In these areas, most land is managed under customary ownership systems that cannot be sold and can only be transferred within close family members. Without familial ties to specific areas, Tuvaluans face difficulties in acquiring and owning land for settlement.

Who Should Provide Compensation?

The people of Tuvalu, facing the impacts of Climate Refugees, are victims of climate change they did not cause. In this situation, it is crucial to consider their rights to receive compensation or solutions for the loss of their land and livelihoods. However, the question remains: who is responsible for providing this compensation?

This is an interesting topic for discussion. Developed countries, which significantly contribute to climate change, are certainly the primary parties responsible for providing compensation. They are obligated to assist the Tuvalu community in finding safe place. Moreover, they must remain committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, global governance concerning climate change mitigation efforts shows an imbalance between developed and developing countries. Instead of committing to stricter rules to reduce emissions causing climate change, developed countries tend to develop policies that place pressure on developing nations. For instance, under schemes like REDD+, the focus is on how developing countries preserve their forests to reduce emissions, rather than how much developed countries reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Krisman Heriamsal
Krisman Heriamsal
Krisman Heriamsal, Postgraduate Student in the Master of International Relations program, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The fields of study that I am currently studying are International Security, Diplomacy, Peace, and Foreign Policy.