Afterthoughts on the Kiribati climate-induced migration meeting

KIRIBATI094-Paula150 24 October 2015

An important High-level Dialogue on Climate-Induced Migration, for low-lying atoll nations, was held in Kiribati recently. The head of the Tokelau delegation, Paula Faiva had delivered the contribution by the Ulu o Tokelau (titular head of the New Zealand territory) there.

The major British newspaper The Guardian asked Paula a number of pertinent questions and here is her response on behalf of Tokelau.
Guardian: Do you consider climate change displacement a serious long and short-term issue?
It is a very serious consequence of impacts on low-lying atolls but also on low delta areas of the Asia Pacific - it is a "now" problem fully recognized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They stated at the meeting that 16.7 million people or 87% of the world's total internal displacement due to natural disasters took place in Asia and the Pacific. It is the highest world over also relative to population size.

With sea-level rise and further climate changes that reduce the capacity to survive on low-lying atolls - this will remain a major issue - the problem for low-lying atoll population is, once resigned to this decision, where to relocate to ensure good life and future. Any intensity 5 cyclone hitting a low-lying atoll could make it happen in the short-term - in response to a disaster. Already, in Fiji, more than 30 coastal villages are earmarked for relocation inland - this is an option for them as these are large islands, but it will not be the case for low-lying atolls of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, or Tuvalu.
The main village Fale on the atoll Fakaofo, Tokelau. When sea level rises, there is nowhere to run for the approx. 400 inhabitants….

Guardian: What action is needed to deal with this?
What we found out at the meeting is that no intergovernmental organization is responsible or have regulations or the mandate to address the issue of environmental and climate-change induced migrations - low-lying atolls population fleeing disaster or climate affected areas have no status - they cannot claim refugee status nor can they be considered stateless people under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) conventions - although migration is likely to be the only solution possible in the future.

Thus, we need to develop a mechanism directed by the COP21 negotiation that build from the expertise now gathered through many intergovernmental organizations such the IOM, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UNHRC, the Nansen Initiative - all requesting that they be addressed urgently by the COP21 agreement. The action required is a clear agreement in the loss and damage section of the agreement to urge all parties to consider planning for climate-induced migration both as an adaptation option and as a failure to adapt fast enough or failure to climate proof fast enough against climate change.

The European Union (EU) representative stressed the importance of early diagnosis and planning for our countries to avoid a totally unplanned and uncontrolled migration that Europe is currently living - a case in point. In the case of climate change, we have the opportunity to plan and direct the process through a solid agreement in COP21 addressing this issue.

Guardian: Are you disappointed that the United Nations has dropped the climate displacement coordination facility idea from the draft text for the Paris climate conference?
We were stunned to receive this news on the plane en route for Tarawa - having the potential to negate the purpose of this High-Level Dialogue called by President Tong and supported by Prince Albert II of Monaco. The Australian High Commissioner was relentlessly put on the spotlight in regards to this position during the debates, and ultimately indicated that what Australia does not want to see is the creation of a new intergovernmental organization for this purpose; but they do not deny the importance of climate change-induced migration and that they are helping Kiribati particularly in training skills and migration schemes opportunities.

This in itself is not a sufficient reason to exclude the mechanism from being included in the text of negotiations, possibly be based in existing intergovernmental organizations. Already, IOM indicated they have created a "Migration Environment and Climate Change Division” at their Geneva Headquarters with focal points in the 9 regional offices as a response to their growing work in this area.

Representatives of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), IOM and ILO indicated strongly the need to have the text on migration reinserted in the COP21 agreement and made sure the Outcomes Document of the Tarawa High Level event include this in its final draft - and it does.

Guardian: What does the international community need to do in response to this issue, and how quickly?
We need the international community to put pressure on Australia and other countries opposing that a mechanism (be it through an existing organization or a new one), be responsible at cross-border displacement and migration caused by climate change.

Migration is in itself recognized as an adaptation measure, but it is more likely to become at scale if low-lying atolls fail to adapt and climate-proof their infrastructure and local populations, in time, for the survival as people. We need relocation plans, we need funding to implement them, we need security of sovereignty and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as well as preemptive agreements based on existing migration schemes with neighbour countries or new ones.

Samoa is helping Tokelau people, Fiji is helping Kiribati and Tuvalu people, there are existing migration workers schemes with both Australia and New Zealand - this just needs to be formalized with plans in place, so if, as a last resort, families have to relocate it is done in an agreed way internationally.

This mechanism and the organizational arrangements needs to be agreed in Paris - this is the best platform to start the planning and ensure we do not repeat history with botched forced relocation of atoll people caused by poor planning and implementation such as in Chagos, Banaba, Bikini, to name a few.
Motu (islands) of the Tokelau atoll Atafu: nothing higher than the top of a coconut tree!


The Guardian newspaper piece about the Kiribati conference is at:

Reports on Tokelau’s contribution to the Kiribati conference are at:

For further information contact:
Paula Faiva, Climate Change Unit
Office of the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau, Apia, Samoa
Email:, phone +685 775 8820