Opinion15 Aug 2019

When good neighbours become good friends

Today’s $500 million donation is an excellent first step, but Australia can do more to protect its Pacific Island neighbours.

Life-threatening Sea Level Rise in Kiribati
Large parts of Eita Kiribati are flooded. The people of Kiribati are under pressure to relocate due to sea level rise. Photo Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Pacific Island leaders, just this month, declared a ‘climate crisis’ at the Pacific Islands Development Forum Leaders’ Summit and Conference held in Nadi, Fiji.

While the international community debates the impacts of climate change, Pacific Islanders watch as their arable land succumbs to the rising sea. In 2014 the Kiribati Island Government considered the threat of climate change severe enough to purchase land in Fiji, in preparation for the relocation of its citizens. And, in the Solomon Islands, the climate change-induced coastal erosion of six islands has already led to the relocation of communities.

Migration- both temporary and permanent- can be an important climate change coping strategy. However, where avenues for regular migration are not available, undocumented migration is often the only feasible option. Those migrating through irregular channels may seek assistance from people smugglers. This places them at risk of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced marriage, and organ removal.

Yesterday, the Morrison Government announced $500 million in aid over five years to strengthen climate resilience in the Pacific. Pacific Island countries faced with the reality of climate-induced migration, need further support to navigate the uncertain times ahead. While yesterday’s aid allocation is an excellent first step, Australia must take further action to reduce the dangers associated with climate-induced migration.

Climate change in the Pacific

For Pacific Island countries, the prospect of relocating is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. They contribute least to the causes of climate change, feel the most significant climate impact and have limited means to combat its effects.

One in every four Pacific Islanders is already living below the national poverty line. Even with strong measures to increase resilience to climate change and a desire by the overwhelming majority of Pacific Islanders to stay and fight, increased climate-induced migration is inevitable.

Three key actions

To combat the risk of climate-induced modern slavery in the Pacific, there are three key areas where Australia can take further action to support its regional neighbours.

  • Combat climate change

G20 countries contribute the most to the ‘spill over’ effects of climate change, according to the 2018 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Index. The SDG Index also found that Australia was one of the worst-performing countries on climate action.

Pacific leaders continue to call on Australia to phase out its reliance on coal-fired power and take steps to meet the net zero emission target by 2050.

In addition, Australia must support Pacific Island countries in international negotiations, to ensure that the nations most vulnerable to climate change have simplified access to international finance.

  • Establish safe, dignified migration pathways

Australia must establish safe and regular migration pathways, for climate-change affected immigrants. This includes providing greater opportunities for seasonal or permanent migration through special visa categories, enhanced labour mobility schemes, and bilateral and multi-country agreements on migration for education, labour and family reunification.

Australia’s labour mobility schemes provide remittances to a handful of Pacific Island countries. These schemes must be accompanied by well-informed supports to avoid worker exploitation.

Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) saw more than 8,400 workers from Pacific Island countries obtain seasonal employment in Australia’s agricultural sector in 2017-18 and provide much-needed revenue to their families and communities.

Despite this, numerous media reports have highlighted the potential for exploitation and forced labour arising from weaknesses in the SWP. Given the projected expansion of the SWP and the recent implementation of the Pacific Labour Scheme, the number of Pacific Islanders working in Australia’s low and semi-skilled sectors looks to increase. These weaknesses must be addressed immediately.

  • Provide support as well as aid

Australia is currently the largest donor to the Pacific and has an established record of providing aid to the Islands after natural disasters and enables capacity building in the region.

Australia must build on its existing efforts by supporting the Pacific Islands in long-term planning to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. This includes enabling capacity building, food security maintenance, and addressing unemployment, particularly for women and youth and other vulnerable populations.

More needed from a generous leader

Yesterday’s announcement confirms Australia as a generous leader in the Pacific region.

It is in our interest and the interest of Australia-Pacific Island relations to do more to address the threat of climate-induced migration going forward.