A Citizen Guide to Climate Refugees

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Climate change is already having disastrous effects on humans around the world, as seen in the tiny island nation of Tuvalu. Residents have been forced to flee their homes, in search of a less vulnerable environment. As environmental refugees, these people need the help from countries like Australia to offer refuge from the impacts of climate change.

Tuvalu.

Located in the Pacific Ocean 3,400km northeast of Australia, Tuvalu is a nation made up of eight tiny coral atolls and has a total area of 26 square kilometers. It is one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with its highest point standing a mere four and half meters above sea level. With a population of 11,336 people, approximately half of all Tuvaluan live just three meters above sea level, making them extremely vulnerable to effects of climate change such as sea level rise.

In December 8, 1997, former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Bikenibeu Paeniu, presented a speech to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto regarding the suffering that Tuvalu is experiencing from sea level rise, strong winds, and an increased frequency of cyclones, flooding and tide surges. He described the effects as « almost unbearable », as vegetation, food crops and whole villages have been destroyed, threatening the health and lives of the Tuvaluan people.

Tuvalu is the first country in which residents have been forced to evacuate because of rising sea levels. Nearly 3000 Tuvaluans have already left their homelands. In support of their crisis, the New Zealand government has established a programme called the Pacific Access Category, which currently sees seventy-five residents migrate to NZ each year.

The Pacific Access Category.

The Pacific Access Category (PAC) is an immigration deal that was formed in 2001 between the governments of Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga and New Zealand (…), to enable environmental refugees who are displaced from their homes by the effects of climate change to move to a less vulnerable environment. Each country has been allocated a set of quota of citizens who can be granted residency in New Zealand each year. The PAC allows 75 residents each from Tuvalu and Kiribati, whereas Tonga and Fiji have a quota of 250 (…).

Following the Australian government’s refusal to accept any Tuvaluan environmental refugees. New Zealand agreed to accept the entire Tuvaluan population of 11,000 (…). Although New Zealand’s immigration policies are far more supportive towards environmental refugees than Australian’s policies, Pacific Islander’s still face a number of impediments to reaching safer ground. Principal applicants must meet set requirements before being eligible to enter the PAC ballot.

These requirements exclude part of the Tuvaluan population by stipulating that: applicants posses citizenship status for Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga et Fiji; are aged between 18 and 45; have an acceptable offer of employment in New Zealand ; have a minimum level of skills in English language ; have a minimum income requirement if the applicant has a dependant ; exhibit certain health and character requirements ; have no unlawful entry into New Zealand since July 1, 2002.

In short, this means that the elderly and the poor- those most vulnerable- may have trouble bring accepted as principal applicants. Furthermore, an ’ acceptable ‘ offer of employment is defined as « permanent, full-time, genuine, and paid by a salary or wages ». Considering their location and level of access to required resources, Tuvaluans may have difficulty gaining employment in New Zealand before they arrive in the country, thereby excluding them from access to the program.

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