'There Is Still Time To Act': Kiribati President Rejects 'Climate Refugees' Tag


The President of the small island nation of Kiribati – one of the world’s most threatened nations from the affects of climate change – says he does not support recognising his people as refugees because there is still time to act.

Kiribati (pronounced Kir-a-bus) is made up of 32 low-lying atolls, some of which lay only meters above sea level. The Micronesian nation is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, situated north east of Nauru. It uses the Australian dollar as its currency.

The urban centre of Tarawa is three meters above sea level and is home to 50,000 people, half of the nation’s population. Kiribati is not just in danger of rising sea levels, but storm surges and extreme weather.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations auspiced body, has targeted Kiribati as one of the most vulnerable to face permanent inundation from sea-level rise. This would impact their infrastructure and socioeconomic activities as well threaten the ecosystems, economy and even the existence of the state, the IPCC estimates.

Recently a New Zealand court deported a Kiribati man who had overstayed his visa, knocking back his appeal for refugee status because of the threat posed to his home.

But that legal reality may change in the not-too-distant future – it’s expected the people of Kiribati will likely be the world’s first climate change refugees, with serious concerns they will be forced to leave their island homes.

This week Kiribati’s president Anote Tonge made a plea to world leaders to act, telling a UN conference on Small Island Developing States in Samoa that for smaller island nations, climate change is not a distant threat.

He says his people do not have to become the world’s first climate change refugees, responding to a question about whether climate change should be included as a requirement in the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees.

He told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program it was time to act now.

“I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees. After all, we have more than adequate time to prepare for it and I think the international community has more than enough time to address it well before it actually happens,” Mr Tonge told the ABC.

“And that is the difference between refugees and what we are now beginning to call climate refugees, because really there should not be climate refugees because we, the international community and everybody has had more than enough time to address these issues. There should be no refugees.”

Mr Tonge says while globally there has to be a concerted effort to cut back on greenhouse emissions, there also has to be support for small island nations who are the most vulnerable to climate change.

He says that even if his people had to re-locate, it would not be as refugees, but as a skilled community.

“We need a combination of action,” Mr Tonge told the ABC.

“For one thing we certainly don’t want to see our islands totally disappear because that would be so… it would be disastrous…. At the same time 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.

“Ok, not as refugees, that is what I am arguing, but we have more than enough time now to train them, to up-skill them, so that they can be worthwhile citizens when we relocate them, and when we relocate them as a community, not as refugees.”

Kiribati currently has an adaption program in place. The government website says it aims to “reduce Kirbati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise by raising awareness about climate change, accessing and protecting available water resources and managing inundations”.

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