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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman


Upon my return to Kiribati in 2008, I was struck by the bleak landscape. The once lush greenery had withered away, leaving behind a desolate brown terrain. "It has been like this since last year," my host mother exclaimed from the backseat of the car, her tone laden with concern.

The prolonged drought that persisted from April 2007 to early 2009 had taken its toll on the entirety of Kiribati, with the Southern Gilberts and Banaba bearing the brunt of its impact. Groundwater sources had turned brackish, rendering them unfit for consumption, while the leaves of most plants had wilted and turned a sickly yellow hue. The signs of distress were evident everywhere, painting a grim picture of the environmental challenges faced by the island nation (Ueneta, Tebwaau, Kireua, & Abeta, 2008).

The national Kiribati Adaptation Programme (KAP) office had recently concluded a comprehensive consultation process with numerous island councils across the country. Through this initiative, over 50 specific challenges stemming from the shifting environmental conditions were identified. Among the most commonly cited concerns were those related to seawater inundation, which posed significant threats to the safety of natural food and freshwater sources, rendering them unsuitable for human consumption.

The government is building sea walls along all the causeways to stop the ocean. Families have built walls to prevent the ocean from damaging their homes and taking their land.  I fear we will soon run out of land and homes to protect.  

During my stay, the urgent necessity to shield the land from heightened waves and intensified storm surges became strikingly apparent. Following my involvement in the reconstruction of a damaged sea wall, I engaged in a candid conversation with a host relative. He conceded that permanent relocation to another country might be the sole viable solution to their persistent challenges.

Rebuilding seawalls and sandbags are only temporary fixes.  I think if Kiribati is going to be flooded by the sea, there will be a significant migration somewhere.  

There are few adaptation options when these strategies fail. Yet, those who can move further inland do so at a cost.  Our land is not easy to leave, and the problem, too, is the cost…  Money to move and the cost to the family…  This is our land, and land is wealth… the sea has made us poor.  The irony is that the sea, a source of great wealth and life in Kiribati, has created great poverty and despair.  

Ten years ago, twenty coconut trees flourished in the front yard of my home in Tarawa.  Today, only two remain.  Each high tide floods my yard with salt water, killing the vegetables and coconut trees I cultivate for food.  My problem is not unique.  Climate change, the culprit behind the country’s droughts and rising sea levels is slowly threatening to destroy the islands and render us the world’s first climate change refugees.

Deeply concerned about the developments in my country of service and eager to learn more about my family's recent discussions, I visited the office of the New Zealand High Commissioner. During my visit, I engaged in a conversation with an I-Kiribati representative who provided me with insights into the assistance and opportunities being offered by New Zealand to individuals and families from Kiribati.

What we see from the President’s office now is to adapt to climate change is to migrate.  In the long term, you will see that the adaptation strategy is not helpful.  When you think about long-term investment for us, you need to move on and migrate because you need to consider your kids' future.  Most people would like to migrate, and we can tell because our PAC applications keep growing...and you can tell people are thinking about it. They will get better opportunities in New Zealand.

In 2007, a significant number of 4,398 I-Kiribati citizens, representing nearly 4.75% of the national population, departed from Kiribati. According to national immigration records, over half of these individuals relocated to either Fiji, New Zealand, or the United States (Kiribati, 2007). While some leave for educational opportunities or temporary labor contracts with intentions to return after completion, others make permanent departures, often due to reasons such as marriage to foreigners or winning the PAC Scheme lottery, which offers migration opportunities. President Tong has repeatedly emphasized on the global stage the urgent predicament facing his country, prompting him and fellow citizens to explore various avenues to leave Kiribati behind.

The discourse on migration driven by climate change has been richly explored in academic literature (Morrow-Jones, 1991; Wood, 2001; Bates, 2002; Castles, 2002; Perch-Nielsen, 2004; Frey, 2006; McLeman, 2006), often focusing on diverse populations facing similar environmental challenges. However, much of this research tends to concentrate on the affected environment rather than the migrants themselves, leading to a gap in understanding the dynamics of long-term resettlement. Studies predominantly emphasize short-term displacement scenarios, assuming that large-scale, permanent migration induced by climate change is a distant prospect (Morrow et al., 1991; Perch et al., 2008).

Kiribati's unique circumstances present an extraordinary opportunity to challenge the misconception that climate change-induced migration is a future concern. It serves as a tangible example of the immediate and pressing nature of this phenomenon. Kiribati functions as a proverbial "canary in the coal mine," sounding a warning to the world about the urgent need to address climate change. President Tong succinctly summed up this argument when he stated: 

We may be gone first, but someone will go next. This makes global warming the single biggest moral test to humanity today.

Continuing conversations with my family revealed a clear divergence of opinions regarding migration. When I broached the topic of leaving Kiribati due to environmental challenges, reactions varied widely. Some eagerly embraced the prospect of relocating to the US with me, while others found the notion difficult to even contemplate.

If you ask the old people, 70s-80s, if they want to leave, they will say why?  I don’t want to leave.  They have a traditional mind.  Old people don’t want to die in South Tarawa; they want to rest on their home island.  Mostly, the old people won’t want to leave.  The young would want to leave because if you don’t have employment, how would you live? They will go to New Zealand or Australia and work on farms if they don’t have the proper education. But if we all have to leave, I must choose the safer life and go.   

In the same year, two more members of our Kiribati family were selected to move to New Zealand through the PAC lottery employment scheme. The atmosphere in our household became charged with emotion as we grappled with the idea of more family members leaving Kiribati. While the younger members expressed excitement, the older generation felt a sense of sadness or attempted to avoid confronting the reality of further migration. Google chat sessions provided a means for connecting with family already living in New Zealand, but despite their convenience, they sometimes intensified the emotional strain of separation. On some nights, these chats served as a painful reminder of our prolonged distance from loved ones, while on others, they shed light on the immense challenges migrants face in adapting to new environments.

He has been there for almost one year, and he says he misses his family and wants them there with him.  He is lonely and not happy being there by himself.  He is living with other I-Kiribati, but I’m sure it’s not the same if you have your own family and house; there, he has neither.

Contemporary migration patterns among the I-Kiribati community blur international boundaries and often place migrants in marginalized positions. Many migrants find themselves in unskilled jobs characterized by lower wages, inferior working conditions, and fewer benefits compared to their national counterparts in their host countries (Connell, 1987; Ahlburg, 1994; Connell et al., 1995; Anae, 2001). Migration driven by existing inequalities tends to perpetuate and even exacerbate social disparities on a broader scale, further widening the gap in social inequality experienced by migrants in their new environments (Connell, 1987).

Due to lower labor costs, New Zealand employers indirectly promote chain migration among I-Kiribati workers. Annually, the New Zealand Government conducts a permanent migration lottery drawing for I-Kiribati citizens. Once selected, individuals must secure a job offer from a New Zealand employer. Existing I-Kiribati workers serve as employment intermediaries, facilitating connections between employers and lottery winners. This sponsored employment networking results in the establishment of concentrated migrant communities, contributing to the formation of enduring and visible I-Kiribati diaspora communities. While economic opportunities have traditionally been a significant driver of migration (Wood, 2001; Bates, 2002; Castles, 2002; Connell, 2004), deteriorating environmental conditions in Kiribati have introduced new factors amplifying migration pressures. The government aims for Kiribati citizens to migrate with dignity and make meaningful social and economic contributions to their new countries through these programs.

They will go with dignity rather than climate change refugees.  I believe ‘refugee’ has a negative tone, one of helplessness and despair. I do not want my people to be labeled like that. We are a proud people, and we will remain proud wherever we go.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not yet established a specific category for climate change refugees, but this hasn't deterred individuals from seeking such status in hopes of migration. In 2012, a Kiribati man applied for "climate change refugee" status in New Zealand. Having overstayed his visa, he sought a more permanent solution to his homelessness, fearing for his children's future due to environmental changes in Kiribati. However, in 2014, a New Zealand High Court judge denied his application, stating that the UNHCR Refugee Convention did not recognize persecution fears based on environmental factors (Meakins, 2012). Despite the denial, his concerns were validated by evidence of King Tides in Kiribati in 2014.

The case of the Kiribati man seeking "climate change refugee" status in New Zealand could indeed set a precedent for future cases, potentially leading to significant implications for migration policy and international cooperation. If such a case were to be successful, it might prompt other countries to consider similar claims and potentially open their borders to individuals facing environmental displacement. However, determining the degree of hardship required for individuals to qualify, as well as identifying who would be accountable and how compensation would be provided, are complex questions that would require careful consideration by international bodies and policymakers.

World leaders would likely face pressure to address emerging cases of climate-induced displacement, especially if such cases became more prevalent. This could lead to increased discussions and potential agreements at the international level aimed at providing assistance and protection for individuals affected by climate change. However, the political will to address these challenges effectively would depend on various factors, including the priorities and interests of different countries and the level of public awareness and advocacy surrounding the issue.

I believe it's my duty to safeguard our environment and the people who inhabit it, even if I don't have direct interactions with them. Imagine the passion you would feel to take action if the well-being of your family and friends were at stake. For me, witnessing environmental degradation without intervening feels akin to watching a train wreck unfold from the sidelines, knowing there are lives at risk inside, and yet doing nothing to prevent it. That's a burden I couldn't bear to live with.

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