Migrant Stories

Have the first “climate refugees” just landed?

I live with someone whose country no longer exists. My wife was born in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Republic of Belarus. The culture she was brought up in as a child, the festivals, the education, the products, like the USSR itself, exist only in books, films and memories. But the land, the land is still there. The people still tell their stories, sing their songs, grow their crops, raise their families.

In my own migrant nation of Ireland, entire villages from the 19th century, ravaged by famine, lie decomposing. Once-thriving islands have lost centuries-old communities to modernity. Only the birds and the seals remain.

Countries disappear, are renamed, and borders are redrawn. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Gran Colombia, Prussia, the Republic of Texas… others exist only in the aspiration of separatists, or await recognition.

And other countries are dying. The sea is encroaching on them, ever higher tides making the soil unfit to grow plants or raise animals. The coast, where fishermen need to live, is crumbling into the sea. Houses calve off the cliffs like the melting glaciers that feed that change. Storms swell rivers, washing away the soil, creating new floodplains, or simply covering precious land where houses once stood.

Those who can, pick up their corrugated iron sheets and their planks and move on to the next seam in the raggedy edge where they start again, without jobs, without health care, without schools, without any thought other than a brighter day for their children.

But could this ever happen to a whole country? Will a whole nation ever pack up and leave? If they do, there are a million questions to be answered, micro and macro, apart from the whimsical “Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?” Can a citizenry exist if its country is no longer on the map? What identifies a country; land, people or culture?

We may have inched closer to something that environmental activists have long been forecasting – the start of the era of the “climate change refugee”: someone who moves to another country when his/hers is no longer habitable.

A New Zealand tribunal recently accepted for permanent residency a family from Tuvalu (a tiny Pacific Island country, threatened by rising sea levels). When their claim for refugee status was overturned, the family appealed and the tribunal found “exceptional circumstances . . . which would make it unjust and unduly harsh for the family to return to Tuvalu.”

Tuvalu – population 11,000 and falling – suffers from recurrent droughts, the drinking water is contaminated by sea salt, and the “king tides” mean that – in the worst case scenario – the country will be uninhabitable within five years.

The family was not admitted as “climate change refugees” (or refugees at all, for that matter). What counted was the time they had already spent in the country and the number of family members already resident. But the judgement makes some interesting observations.

It accepted that “exposure to the impacts of natural disasters can, in general terms, be a humanitarian circumstance,” that under certain conditions could make it unjust or unduly harsh to deport a particular individual.

It recognized that Tuvalu was particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, including “coastal erosion, flooding and inundation, increasing salinity of fresh ground-water supplies, destruction of primary sources of subsistence, and destruction of personal and community property.”

It acknowledged that the children’s young age made them “inherently more vulnerable to natural disasters and the adverse impact of climate change.”

Tuvalu, noted the tribunal, was actively taking steps to meet the challenges caused by natural disasters and the adverse impacts of climate change. As such, there was no basis for holding that the family was at risk of being subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by the government.

Tuvalu is not the only Pacific country where the clock is ticking. The island country of Kiribati has bought agricultural land in Fiji (which some feel may eventually be used for housing, if Kiribati disappears). The Government already trains its people on how to adapt to a new culture. Christopher Loek, President of the Marshall Islands, greets visitors with the phrase “welcome to climate change”.

An elderly Tuvaluan, now resident in New Zealand was recently quoted in Mother Jones Magazine as saying, "The next generation gets caught by two cultures. Before Tuvalu sinks physically, our identity might sink in a foreign country."

It seems that unique cultures in this sun-splashed region are already under threat, and may go the way of other indigenous lifestyles in Arctic nations. This would be the ultimate irony.