OPINION: Like its neighbours in the Pacific, the Cook Islands is no stranger to severe natural disasters. Pacific island countries are highly susceptible to increasingly frequent and extreme events, such as cyclones, tsunamis and landslides, as well as the slower-onset effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increased temperatures and coastal erosion.
Last week I was privileged to attend the first-ever regional consultation of the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, held in the Cook Islands in the Pacific. The consultation, hosted by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, brought together government officials from ten Pacific countries, as well as representatives from regional and international organisations, academia and civil society.
The issue of cross-border migration is always a sensitive one, and even more so when the prospective, permanent movement of whole communities is contemplated. While a key message from the meeting was that Pacific peoples wish to remain in their homes for as long as possible, there was recognition that some displacement and migration is inevitable. As the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands observed: ‘If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail.’
But while Pacific island countries are some of the most vulnerable to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change, especially in the longer-term, there was a striking focus on ‘self-help:’ the need to strengthen community resilience, raise awareness and increase preparedness. Participants identified initiatives at the community, national, regional and international levels that would facilitate adaptation and enable people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, while also developing strategies to enhance mobility for those who wished to move.
A set of action points was presented to Pacific leaders, who undertook to take them to other regional fora and to work towards realizing concrete outcomes.
Participants identified the need to educate both at-risk and potential host communities about the prospect of population movements, and to ensure that communities could participate fully in consultations about possible relocation strategies. They noted that a key challenge in the Pacific relates to customary land tenure and the shortage of alienable, freehold land, and that safeguards would need to be developed to prevent and solve conflicts over land and resources.
Participants noted the importance of training and education within their countries to equip people with the skills to work abroad, as well as to contribute to their own society while they remained there. In this regard, they encouraged States to review their admission and immigration policies to enable voluntary migration at an early stage, as well as mechanisms for temporary and permanent protection for those displaced by natural disasters. They recommended that States review their citizenship laws to ensure that dual nationality was permitted, to help safeguard the cultural identity of those who migrate on a permanent basis. They called on Pacific countries to draw on lessons from past experience and existing good practices to develop normative frameworks to address the protection needs of displaced or relocated populations, and to ensure that the human rights of those who move are fully respected.
It was notable, although not at all surprising to those who know the region, that the idea of a new ‘climate refugee’ treaty was never raised as a desirable option. While this is an oft-championed outcome within academic discourse (predominantly in Europe and North America, but also in Australia), it is wholly removed from the needs and desires of the Pacific peoples for whom it is assumed to be a solution. The ‘climate refugee’ framework has no purchase in the Pacific because it does not fit with the kind of movement we are likely to see, nor the self-help approach that Pacific peoples advocate.
It is essential to listen to what Pacific islanders themselves are calling for, rather than to assume what they need. Too often the ‘solutions’ thought up by the international community do not match the identified needs on the ground, and if we fail to listen, then we will end up with ill-fitting policies and mechanisms. As one participant noted, the international community can help to provide the ingredients, but not the recipe.
Indeed, the importance of holding the meeting within the Pacific region cannot be underestimated. Those who came across the world could see just how vulnerable atolls are to sea-level rise, and could get a sense of the great cultural and linguistic diversity of Pacific islanders. This was not a meeting in which the Pacific featured as an abstract, stereotypical example but as the lived experiences, concerns and ideas of Pacific peoples – from government, the churches, international organisations and non-governmental organisations.
People came to the table with an open mind to share experiences, not to negotiate from political perspectives. Government ministers talked movingly about their personal experiences of searching for missing relatives in the wake of natural disasters. An elderly Banaban woman’s memories of her relocation to Fiji as an eight-year-old child revealed the on-going trauma of displacement when it is not properly planned.
Participants also spoke of the tremendous resilience of Pacific communities, the strength and support of kinship networks, and the importance and success of regional approaches to disaster risk reduction, early warning systems, and embracing migration as an adaptation strategy.
The Pacific consultation showed the importance not only of consulting communities, but of doing so within their own region. A critical mass of participants, operating within a familiar environment, meant that people felt more comfortable sharing their opinions with each other and with the representatives from the ‘international community’. The meeting structure was shaped in conjunction with the host government and took into account familiar participatory models to encourage discussion. Prayers were said at the beginning and end of each day’s gathering; there was spontaneous singing at the end of the meeting; the poignancy of individual experiences of tsunamis and cyclones was brought home by the fact we were next to the sea and could see the tsunami evacuation route signs dotted along the island’s coastline. There was less scope for intimidation by foreign surroundings and customs, rushed meeting schedules, or geographical disconnect between the meeting location and the focus of the dialogue. Here, the Pacific was the centre, not Geneva or New York.
The importance of place also cannot be underestimated for the policymakers from outside the Pacific who came to the meeting. The consultation brought to life issues which may be difficult to grasp without having experienced first-hand life on a small atoll. The diversity of culture, the sense of Pacific community and solidarity, the commonality of experience and the willingness to learn and share were striking. This is a great strength of the Nansen Initiative’s regional consultation approach. Without a systematic approach like this, there is a risk that regional concerns become diluted or homogenised to some abstract ‘universal’ experience, and with the loss of nuance comes the loss of appropriate interventions.
Jane McAdam is a Scientia Professor of Law at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published by the Brookings Institution.