UN: Low-lying island nations to face migration hurdles


People living in small island nations set to be submerged under rising seas will face legal problems as they attempt to migrate to dry land, United Nations climate experts said Wednesday.

Ice melt caused by a warming atmosphere is making sea levels rise, which will cause problems globally – but perhaps nowhere more acutely than the low-lying islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru in the South Pacific Ocean.

A survey conducted by the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, presented at a global climate summit in Paris, showed that people in all three countries – whose combined population is 124,000 – have already started migrating in search of dry land.

Fifteen and 10 per cent of the population on the tiny islands of Tuvalu and Nauru already migrated internationally. In Nauru, surveys showed that 40 per cent of households “feel that migration will be a likely response if sea level rise or flooding worsens.”

Kiribati, whose president said during opening remarks Monday that his country has already started establishing plans for mass migration to Fiji, has had 1.3 per cent of its population move internationally and 7.7 per cent move internally. Problems related to climate were the second most-cited reason to move.

But UN expert Koko Warner warned that climate refugees don’t fit within global legal migration rules, making it more difficult for people fleeing adverse weather patterns caused by climate change and leaving people in legal limbo.

Economic migrants searching for work can apply for visas, and refugees fleeing persecution by other humans can qualify for asylum under the Geneva Convention’s rules on refugees.

Warner said even while countries like Sweden and Germany are stepping up their efforts to accommodate refugees leaving conflict zones like Syria, more people will be forced to leave their homes as local and regional climates change due to global warming.

Already in the three islands, 7 to 9 per cent of the population wanted to migrate but could not, according to the surveys. The biggest climate-related problems were sea level rise, drought, and what experts called “saltwater intrusion” that made it more difficult for people to keep fresh water protected.

Negotiators in Paris are trying to hammer out a global agreement to limit warming by 2 degrees Centigrade, by setting ceilings on the amount of carbon emissions countries can produce.