I attended a meeting about climate change tonight which included a speaker from the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu. Accompanied by some visual images, her message about the danger climate change presents to her country was compelling.
As I noted last year when I met some MPs from Micronesia, it is a lot harder to be blasé or sanguine about the impacts of climate change when someone is talking directly to you about the damage happening now in their own homeland, and the stress and anxiety people are feeling about the future. This piece by Dr Mark Hayes in Online Opinion also gives a first hand idea of what the reality of climate change means for the people of Kirabiti and Tuvalu.
Whilst our government dodges questions about climate change refugees by saying that people fleeing environmental disasters do not fit the criteria of refugee under the Refugee Convention (a point which is technically true, but also ignores human reality and everyday usage of the term), the potential of having to flee your homeland and be unable to return, along with the disconnection from culture and identity that can go with it, equates precisely with the refugee experience.
There was also a speaker from the Labor Party there who talked about “Our Drowning Neighbours”, the discussion paper released last year, prior to that party’s leadership change, by the former shadow Ministers for Pacific Island Affairs and the Environment respectively. (as an aside, whilst the leadership change is obviously going well for Labor, I do think it’s a shame they no longer have a shadow ministry position focussed specifically on the Pacific, as our own region is shamefully neglected in much political and policy debate.) This paper isn’t official Labor policy as yet, but it is still very welcome that the issue has received that level of attention from the alternative party of government.
This article from last year describes a World Bank policy paper, “Not If But When”, which examines the potential impacts of climate change on Pacific Island nations and what needs to be done to adapt. This piece is about a village in Vanuatu which has been affected.
In amongst considerations about Australia’s obligations to accept environmental refugees from Pacific Island nations, I believe we also need to keep looking at making access to Australia for work purposes easier for people from these nations. I’ve mentioned before that we take in over 100 000 people on Working Holiday visas each year, mostly from western Europe and North America, to perform unskilled work, yet we will not allow in workers from Pacific Island countries to do such work, even in seasonal jobs where it is sometimes hard for employers to find sufficient workers. There was a Senate Committee Inquiry into this issue last year, and I found myself in rare agreement with Tasmanian Liberal Senator, Guy Barnett, in suggestion we should do a trial on opening up this type of migration.
Helping people from Pacific Islands affected by climate change won’t just involve letting people come to live in Australia whose islands have become uninhabitable. More frequently, it will mean helping them adapt, which to me should include better access to technological assistance and the wealth creating and skill development opportunities to help their local economies adapt.