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Pacific Islanders Threatened By Climate Change Face a Legal Black Hole

For Ursula Rakova, climate change isn't a theory—it's a tangible threat that has been encroaching upon her ancestral home on the Carterets Islands for decades now.

Climate change is a daily reality on the Carteret Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Photo via Flickr user Citt

For Ursula Rakova, climate change isn't a theory—it's a tangible threat that has been encroaching upon her ancestral home on the Carterets Islands for decades now. Global warming has forced the 2700 members of her community off the coast of Papua New Guinea to forge new lives on higher ground.


Indigenous communities make up five percent of the world's population, and are often directly and drastically affected by climate issues, even when they aren't forced to relocate. And those like Rakova's whose land is disappearing from beneath their feet have to negotiate a transition without any legal framework to guide them.

"We have lost our staple food crop," Rakova told me just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York. "Our shorelines have eroded. We have lost at least 40 percent of our land. One of the islands in the Carterets is divided [by ocean water] and the gap continues to grow…We cannot talk about food security on the islands. It has gone."

As ocean levels rise due to climate change, sandy atolls—chains of islands formed by coral reefs—are at risk of disappearance. The Carterets, less than four feet above sea level, are already being overun by the saltwater around around them. It's just a matter of years, according to Rakova, before they become completely uninhabitable.

The worst part, of course, is that Carteret Islanders are losing their homes to a crisis they have played little part in bringing about.

"We don't drive cars," Rakova told VICE. "We don't even have electricity on our islands and yet we are victims of what is happening. We are victims of what is being caused by other people."

Carteret Islanders make up a small portion of the estimated 20.6 million people displaced by extreme weather last year, which is believed to have been exacerbated by climate change. For now, many of them have decided to stay put, but on nearby islands, that's no longer an option.


The majority of those who will be most immediately affected by rising temperatures and ocean levels are indigenous people. But it's been estimated that up to 300 million worldwide will be displaced by the affects of climate change before the year 2050, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

"It's already like a weapon of mass destruction," the prime minister of Tuvalu has said of the impact climate change is having on the island nation in the South Pacific. Its nearly 11,000 residents face the impending loss of their homes and farms—but under international law, they aren't able to cite these losses to make their case for obtaining asylum.

That's why a family from Tuvalu drew so much attention when they were granted asylum in New Zealand in June. It's been argued that courts granted residency to the family because of their humanitarian circumstance—but also because they have relatives in New Zealand. Still, many have noted that the Tribunal cited a lack of land and livelihood in Tuvalu as part of their rationale for the decision, and specifically noted that the "exposure to the impact of natural disasters can, in general terms, be a humanitarian circumstance" that might make it unjustly harsh to return people to the country from which they've fled. The point was further made that "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" left Tuvalu uniquely vulnerable.


The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees does not specifically include climate change as valid factor that can be used to offer refugee status to displaced people. But according to Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and current head of the UN Development Programme, it's very much on the agenda.

"We can't take our eye off of the ball of trying to turn the tide on climate change, on adaptation, but if the world is not ambitious enough and doesn't take enough action, then we have very, very serious issues of people needing somewhere else to live," she told VICE.

When pressed, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees Antonio Guterres put the number of people currently displaced by climate change in the tens of millions.

"The truth is that we are witnessing more and more people forced to move that do not fall into the legal definition of refugees, even if, in the normal language, we also call them refugees," he told me, citing a combination of "megatrends" including the effects of climate change, in addition to the other factors including population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

"There is, in my opinion," Guterres added, "a serious gap of people who have chance but to move, and unfortunately, have no rights under the general human rights frameworks."

Led by Norway and Sweden, the Nansen Initiative for Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement is working on creating an alternative legal designation for those who are displaced by climate change, and a policy report on the topic is expected next year.


At the first high-level World Indigenous Peoples Conference Monday, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said, "Indigenous peoples are concerned about issues that top the global agenda. They are deeply connected to Mother Earth—whose future is at the heart of the Climate Summit." Ban urged world leaders to make "bold pledges" to reduce the impact of climate change ahead of Tuesday's Summit, and made his own move by taking part in a climate march that drew more than 300,000 to the streets of New York on Sunday.

"The communities that we work with have subsistence lifestyles," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network has point out. "They live off the land. We are the first ones affected by dirty energy, and so we are the first ones affected by climate change and the first ones first to suffer because of that.

The issue of forced migration due to extreme environmental and weather conditions is gaining traction as a political and legal concept, even if many of those forced to flee their homes chafe at the phrase "climate change refugee."

"I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees," Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, another atoll at risk of being flooded, said at a conference in Samoa earlier this month.

"People in the Pacific Islands…tell us, 'We do not want to be refugees because refugees are people who are marginalized and in desperation depend on handouts. We don't want that. We want to stay [in our home countries],'" Walter Kaelin, a former special envoy on internal displacement, told the Radio Australia program Pacific Beat.


President Anote Tong of Kiribati, an atoll rapidly being subsumed by the ocean, is on the same page: "I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees. We have to acknowledge the reality that with the rising sea, the land area available for our populations will be considerably reduced and we cannot accommodate all of them, so some of them have to go somewhere, but not as refugees."

Ursula Rakova just doesn't think the definition of refugee fits her community. "Refugees are already a convention by the UN, but displaced communities basically [are different] because we have to move," she said. "It's not that we are moving away for political reasons. We are moving away because the place where we are cannot sustain our continued inhabitance, especially for us small islands and atolls in the world."

Since 1992, she has worked to make the most of her the islands she grew up on while working to build connections and find land in less threatened areas nearby for her community to inhabit once they're forced to flee. She has carried out this work under the banner of Tulele Peisa, an organization she founded in 1992 when her home atoll broke in two. Rakova has helped a few families move to Bougainvillea area nearly 50 miles away to farm cocoa. The sale of the harvested crop helps to sustain those who have stayed behind—though she recognizes that it's only a matter of how long they can continue to live on a sinking island.

To Rakova and many in her community, it's less about money and more a question of personal dignity.

"Basically losing your connection and identity to the place, and to your own community and having to move to another location—it's an anxiety," she told me. "It's also a loss of identity."

Beenish Ahmed is a freelance multimedia journalist. She reported this story with support from the United Nations Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.