Tokelauans’ prior relocation highlighted in Kiribati

by Ms Paula Faiva, Head of the Tokelau delegation
at the

Your Excellency President Anote Tong,
Your Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco,
Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Honorable Enele Sosene Sopoaga
Assistant Secretary to the United Nations, Mr. Haoliang Xu
Ambassadors and Heads of CANCC delegations
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen
Malo Ni and Mauri to all.

Please allow me to first express my Government’s (the Office of the Council of On-going Government of Tokelau)’s gratitude for the invitation to participate in this High Level Event, as a member of the Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change – because of our nation’s international status we are generally “left behind” when it comes to discussing and acting on climate change, although like other low-lying atolls we suffer the same plight, with our people homelands potentially becoming uninhabitable – or simply disappear, despite major adaptation efforts. Some say, it is too late to keep our islands above sea-level, as the impacts of carbon dioxide are essentially locked in for the next 1,000 years. This would leave us at the mercy of larger, less vulnerable and large emitter nations, having to accept reality.

But our people are resilient by nature and there is no talk of relocation, as this would be admitting defeat in our fight against climate change caused by developed countries emissions, while speeding-up demise of our culture, way of life and future aspirations. “This is not a war where collateral damage becomes an acceptable concept under international law” as His Excellency Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands, alluded to at the 3rd PIDF Summit in Suva recently. It is truly a question of human rights.  We were reminded recently by the taupulega of our three nukus, Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, that we had the ultimate responsibility to adapt to the new challenges facing our atolls, be it contamination of scant sources of fresh water, flooding, sea-level rise, intense cyclones or tidal surges – we need to develop a strategy that focus on solutions, natural or engineered to ensure islanders remain and thrive on our atolls.

Environmental migration is not a new concept for Tokelau. In the mid-1960s the Government of New Zealand was concerned that our population of 1,900 was too high for the assumed carrying-capacity of the islands while migration increased after a tropical cyclone in 1966. That year, the Tokelau Islands Resettlement Scheme was initiated and when suspended in 1976, 528 people had been resettled. Since then, emigration to New Zealand has decreased and the population maintained at 1,400 or the equivalent of 117 habitants per km2. This compares to nearly 500 habitants per km2 in Nauru, 420 habitants per km2 in Tuvalu and 134 per km2 for Kiribati. This begs the question, what is the true carrying-capacity of atolls in this 21st century.

If Ioane Teitiota’s I-Kiribati family had been Tokelauan, they would have been accepted with open arms in New Zealand – but we all know the outcome of that legal battle and the decision not to reinterpret the Refugee Convention or relaxing the rules to cover climate change. Our status, we acknowledge, gives us this opportunity to relocate – but our islanders would rather fight and adapt, than migrate - despite this open-door policy.
Our people want to maintain their identity and dignity, way of life, familial land rights and traditions that are unique, and one day claim our islands sovereignty, as mandated by the UN Commission on Decolonization. So the questions related to forced migration are also critical to Tokelau: we need commitment from the international community, we need plans in place for nations in the frontline, we need protection for our displaced people, we want to retain sovereignty and our EEZ. If low-lying atolls and other Pacific Islanders are not refugees in the making, the question remains what are we, and what conventions can be put in place to protect us.

Tokelau, would like to commend you Mr. President for having the courage and foresight in leading the world on acknowledging the issue of climate induced migration, so that steps at the international law, the Law of the sea and human right levels are agreed, adhered to, funded and enforced in the eventuality of the worst possible scenario for our people.  Thus, Tokelau stands in full support to the concept of “migration with dignity” advocated by sovereign atoll nations and trust the international community will recognize it as an essential planning instrument of a legally-binding climate deal to be negotiated in Paris this December, so that mistakes of the past in most attempts at resettlement of atoll people during colonial days (Chagos, Banaba, Bikini, to name a few) are not repeated.

In our engagement leading to Paris, as part of the New Zealand delegation, we will advocate for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” to be inserted in the final agreement for COP21, so that appropriate planning of potential relocation is provided, as well as compensation, to our people fleeing rising sea levels, extreme weather and loss of livelihoods.  

We are grateful to the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, as well as to the Nansen Initiative and UNESCAP, for recognizing the issues raised by climate induced migrations and look forward to addressing the difficult questions raised by the migrations of low-lying atoll people to other lands as a result of climate change impacts beyond our capacity to adapt. Thank you for always keeping your Tokelau friends in mind so we are not left behind in the process.  

Thank you Mister Chair. Fakafetai! And …..(Koropa!).

See also Media Release
Ms Paula Faiva, Head of the Tokelau delegation; and Mr Francois Martel in his swan song as Tokelau Climate Change and COP21 adviser, before he takes up his role as Chief Executive of the Pacific Islands Development Forum based in Fiji.