“There is the need for ongoing monitoring and assessment of migration needs associated with climate risks” – Climate Champion’s Speech at the Pacific Immigration Directors Conference

Bula vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all

I am delighted to join this session today share with you some perspectives on the issue of climate change and migration in the Pacific.

Climate change and disaster induced movement of local communities in Pacific Island countries is an emerging priority issue as it is bound to escalate with intensifying climate change related impacts such as stronger cyclones and increasing frequency of extreme weather events like flooding and prolonged droughts.

Before proceeding, I would first like to remind us of the three different types of movement or human mobility associated with climate risk. These are 1) Displacement 2) Migration and 3) Planned relocation.

The first – “Displacement” is usually associated with intensive risk where the occurrence of a disaster event is the primary driver of movement. An example is the displacement of communities and households after destruction caused by cyclone Winston in Fiji, cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and the devastating tsunami that hit Samoa in 2009.

The second – “Migration” is usually associated with extensive risk where the decision to move is complex and often linked to multiple drivers, including but not limited to climate risk. In the Pacific, these include economic and cultural drivers.

Displacement and migration associated with climate risks can take place within or across national borders

The third – “Planned relocation” is largely internal movement and is an organised relocation typically supervised and carried out by the state with aim of reducing weather and climate risks.

So with these definitions out of the way I would like to speak specifically on the topic of the session which is on the “impacts of climate change on migration”.

Ladies and gentlemen

It is undeniable that climate risks will be an added motivator for people to move. This is more significant for us in the Pacific island region which is ranked as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world.

The impacts of climate change will bring about the loss of livelihoods – ranging from small-holder farmers to large companies; the loss of land as a result of sea-level rise and coastal erosion; the loss of productive soil and freshwater sources from salt water contamination, frequent inundation and prolonged droughts; and the loss of infrastructure.

This obviously has wide ranging impacts on our societies. Communities and individuals may be forced to find more habitable and safer locations to dwell, to move to more fertile land to farm, and to a more economically productive environment to thrive.

However, the extent of the movement of people is also dependent on the ability of the community and the country to adapt and to cope with these changes.

Ladies and gentlemen

Reports from many of our island countries indicate that communities prefer to move within their country borders whenever possible. This raises the importance of building a country that is more resilient– economically, culturally and ecologically.

And in this regard, migration can be seen as a means to strengthen resilience.

Seasonal work overseas can contribute significantly to adaptation and disaster preparedness efforts. An example is the support to Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam through the increase in the quota of seasonal workers to Australia and New Zealand as means to boost income.

Income from seasonal work can provide communities with resources to help them cope better with disasters and extreme events.

An example is the use of this money or remittances to build cyclone-proof houses and set up water tanks. Such overseas seasonal work is an opportunity to contribute towards strengthening resilience and we should not wait for a disaster to happen to facilitate such assistance.

The Seasonal Workers scheme requires limited skills therefore, providing opportunities for vulnerable households. It would be beneficial to expand these programmes in the Pacific and to work with recipient countries to target vulnerable communities.

But while migration can be seen as a means to strengthen resilience in small Pacific Island Countries, we should also recognise the brain drain caused by this. It is clear that those with financial resources and professional skills are more accessible to visas for permanent residency in other countries.

This results in the loss of valuable human resources and investment needed to strengthen a country’s adaptive capacity. Smart policies need to be developed to encourage these human resources to give back to their countries in terms of sharing their skills and technologies that have been further cultivated abroad.

Ladies and gentlemen

As you all know, the reasons for migration is multi-faceted and not linked to climate change alone. But, I would like to remind you of the following –

Firstly – the need for communities to move as a result of direct or indirect climate risks is bound to increase. How this takes place however, is dependent on country policies and plans. There needs to be forward planning on this.

For instance – the surge of communities in remote outlying islands into the country capitals would place extreme environmental and social pressure on the main island. This could force the country to find innovative ways to absorb this pressure including looking for land outside its borders or exploring opportunities for the movement of people beyond their borders.

Secondly – migration for whatever reason, affects the resilience of a country. It can be positive – like diversified income-generating opportunities. Or, it can be negative – like the loss of skilled human resources and social disturbances. Policies and guidelines should be developed to ensure optimum benefits are derived to reduce and not increase the vulnerability of our island states as a result of such migration.

Thirdly – let us be reminded that the movement of people is global and impacts us here in the Pacific as well. We have seen the movement of families and communities from other vulnerable regions into the Pacific.

While many of these movement are driven by conflict, resource scarcity and abject poverty, we need to consider how the impacts of climate change will affect these situations.

What remains clear is the need for ongoing monitoring and assessment of migration needs associated with climate risks.

I therefore, urge all of you to continue to keep your finger on the pulse of discussions on this rapidly evolving topic on “climate change and migration”. To continue to share experiences and solutions on this important and grave issue – because it is an issue that affects the livelihood and wellbeing of our Pacific Island communities.

Vinaka vakalevu.  Thank you.