World Bank argues structured migration program would prevent forced migration in future generations
Australia and New Zealand should allow open migration for citizens of Pacific nations threatened by climate change, to boost struggling island economies and prevent a later mass forced migration, a paper from the World Bank argues.
The policy paper, Pacific Possible, suggests as one climate change adaptation measure, open access migration from Tuvalu and Kiribati – for work and permanent settlement – to Australia and New Zealand.
Tuvalu (population 11,000) and Kiribati (107,000) are low-lying archipelago nations in the Pacific acutely vulnerable to climate change, in particular to rising sea levels that have already begun inundating land and homes across the islands.
The World Bank paper argues a structured migration program instituted now would prevent a more harried, forced migration in future generations.
“The worsening impacts of climate change have provided a new moral imperative for providing open access,” the report says.
It forecasts, with open migration, about 1,300 i-Kiribati and Tuvaluans would migrate to Australia and New Zealand annually, about 0.6% of those countries’ combined annual permanent migration programs.
“The two governments would prefer a slow outward flow resulting from voluntary migration and do not wish their peoples to be treated as ‘refugees’ fleeing a hopeless economic and environmental situation.”
Seventeen people from the Pacific – including 11 from Tuvalu and five from Kiribati – have already made refugee claims in New Zealand, citing climate change as part of their basis of claim. None have been successful (four have yet to be determined and 13 have been rejected) because the refugees convention does not recognise climate change as grounds for protection.
Report author Prof Stephen Howes from the Australian National University said unrestricted access across national borders was unusual but it did occur, with some Pacific nations, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, granted open access to the US, effectively borderless travel between Australia and New Zealand, and free movement within the EU.
“But there has to be something very special, very important to allow that free movement. It seems to us that climate change might provide such unusual circumstances as to give rise to open access.”
He stressed the migration to Australia and New Zealand was not “about emptying out those countries” but with making them sustainable, economically and environmentally.
Howes said it was important to have a pathway to permanent migration for Pacific Islanders coming to Australia and New Zealand so they could form diasporas that could assist later generations of migrants.
“If you don’t have that avenue for permanent migration, you won’t establish a diaspora, and the most successful migrant communities we’ve seen, for instance, the Indian community in Australia, thrive because of the personal and community links an established diaspora provides.”
Open access migration for all Pacific Islanders has been proposed by a number of Australian thinktanks as a more effective mechanism than aid for lifting struggling Pacific states out of poverty.
A December 2016 report by the Lowy Institute’s Leon Berkelmans and Jonathan Pryke argued that allowing just 1% of the Pacific’s population – an average intake of fewer than 3,000 people – to work permanently in Australia would deliver a “transformational impact” and be of greater benefit to the people of the Pacific by 2040 than all of Australia’s current aid to the region.
Based on conservative assumptions, an uncapped migration model could increase the income of some Pacific Island countries – for the entire population, not just emigrants – by 300 to 400% over the next 25 years.
“We are conscious that this focus is a different way of thinking about development but conventional thinking is clearly not working in the Pacific.”
In March the Menzies Research Centre said Australia had been slow to realise the potential of the Pacific and suggested Australia create two dedicated visa categories for Pacific Island workers – a skilled visa and a labour exchange visa for unskilled work in a variety of seasonal industries.
“The time is now ripe for Australia to reconsider how it engages with the Pacific workforce,” the Menzies report says. “Forecasts for labour demands suggest that the domestic labour supply will not be sufficient to meet demand in sectors like aged and community care, agriculture and tourism and hospitality. They are sectors with jobs that workers from the Pacific are potentially well-suited to fill.”
Launching the Menzies Research Centre report, the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, said Australia had a substantial aid program in the region, focused on infrastructure, health, education, security and defence.
“But foreign aid alone will not deliver economically sustainable and independent nations,” she said. “That’s why we’re focusing on seeking to build the economies of our Pacific Island neighbours.
Bishop said Pacific labour migration to Australia was “a win-win”.
“Australia has some of our labour force shortages met but those from the Pacific gain skills, gain an opportunity, gain access to Australian qualifications, see Australian business practices and of course send home remittances.”
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told the Pacific Islands Forum in September that Australia was looking to make a “step-change” in its relationship with the Pacific.
Australia’s relations with the region are expected to be a key element of the government’s forthcoming migration white paper. Australia has run a seasonal workers program since 2012 – which has attracted some criticism over worker exploitation – and, since last year, a Pacific microstates-northern Australia worker pilot, which provides multi-year visas for up to 250 workers from Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.
Bishop’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said climate change migration was not a priority.
“Australia believes that the best response to climate change impacts, where feasible, is effective adaptation and well-supported internal relocation rather than resettlement.”
The New Zealand government said its immediate climate change focus was on effective and comprehensive global mitigation to reduce emissions, and for the implementation of effective adaptation measures that reduce the vulnerability of countries and communities.
By Ben Doherty and Eleanor Ainge Roy for The Guardian, 8 May 2017