The tiny Micronesian state of Kiribati (pronounced Kirabass) was in the news lately. A recent United Nations human rights committee ruling states that it is unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by climate change. The ruling was made after a New Zealand court rejected the claim of a Kiribati citizen who applied for refugee status in New Zealand for himself and his family. He claimed that their lives were at risk due to rising sea levels. While upholding New Zealand’s claim, the UN human rights committee cited projections that rising sea levels won’t make the atolls that comprise Kiribati uninhabitable for 10 to 15 years. They believe that time period should allow the international community to take steps to “protect and, where necessary, relocate [Kiribati’s] population.” (The Guardian, 20 Jan 2020)
The 33 islands and atolls that make up the nation of Kiribati are among the most threatened places on earth. The atolls are only a few feet above sea level. Already a combination of storm surges and salinization of freshwater aquifers on the islands is challenging inhabitants. Even when storms aren’t threatening to swallow the islands, fresh water is becoming difficult to find. Low lying islands in Hawaii, Japan and the Arctic have already disappeared. (NBC News, 9 June 2019)
Nor is Kiribati alone among the Pacific Nations: the nine islands that comprise Tuvalu are also experiencing threats. (The Guardian, 16 May 2019) As Tuvalu resident Nausaleta Setani, initially not a believer in climate change, has said, “I have been learning the things that are happening are the result of man, especially [from] other countries. It makes me sad. But I understand other countries do what is best for their people. I am from a small country. All I want is for the bigger countries to respect us, and think of our lives.”
Former president of Kiribati Anote Tong claims that it is already too late for Kiribati even as the large nations of the world do little or nothing about climate change. (The Washington Post, 24 Oct 2018) According to a University of Texas at Austin update, “Climate Security in Oceania,” (31 Dec 2019), Tong’s ideas have not changed on the subject.
But will the international community respond by allowing the islanders to migrate with dignity? Examples from Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to Hungary’s efforts to ban immigrants suggest the international community won’t respond with generosity.
Prepared by Art Holbrook, PPP Board Member and Chair of the Communications Committee