Our Pacific Island neighbours face widespread displacement in the coming decades due to more frequent natural disasters such as cyclones, king tides, droughts and flooding. Countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu are already facing existential questions about their capacity to sustain their populations into the future. The Australian government is facing renewed pressure to take responsibility and do more for Pacific Islanders who are identified as among the most vulnerable to a changing climate.
A new policy paper by the University of New South Wales' (UNSW) Kaldor Centre, recommends that the Australian government should start planning now for an influx of Pacific Islanders being displaced due to climate events. The paper recommends extending the Seasonal Worker Program to a Pacific Access Visa along the lines of what our friends across the ditch in New Zealand have had in place for decades.
Until recently I had no idea that we had a shortage of fruit pickers in Australia. This year the deficit has been exacerbated by COVID-19. I now know that we don't only rely on backpackers to do the heavy lifting where fruit picking is concerned, but our fruit industry also depends on Pacific Islanders, who come to Australia each year through the Seasonal Worker program. This program, which allows citizens of the Pacific and Timor Leste to work on Australian farms for nine months of the year and has seen more than 20,000 people travel to Australia under the scheme.
The Kaldor Centre paper explains that "responding to displacement is not just a humanitarian imperative, but it is also in Australia's national interest". It's a two-way street. The stability and prosperity of Pacific Island countries directly impact Australia, and Australia benefits from the economic and social contributions Pacific Islanders make as temporary and permanent migrants.
Our NZ neighbours are one step ahead of us when it comes to a Pacific Access Visa. The NZ visa scheme allows 75 Kiribati citizens, 75 Tuvalu citizens, 250 Tongan citizens and 250 Fijian citizens to migrate each year through a ballot system. Residents of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are automatically considered citizens of New Zealand. The United States also has free movement agreements with Micronesia, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which allows migrants to work and live in the US without a visa. The Director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program, Mr Pryke, told SBS News the policy paper is urging Australia to "get on the same page" as other Asia-Pacific nations."We're not calling for anything radical ... we're really just advocating for schemes that are similar to what other major powers in the pacific have been doing for decades," he said.
A climate justice complaint to the UN (that the Australian government is refusing to address)
Another matter requiring the government to "get their heads out of the sand" and act is the landmark human rights complaint by the "Torres Strait 8", alleging cultural violations over the Australian government's lack of action on climate change. One of the group members, Yessie Mosby, a sixth-generation traditional elder, is worried about rising seas causing erosion and claiming more sacred sites on his tiny island of Masig. Additionally, their crops are being destroyed by salinity, and drinking water is contaminated. He told the ABC "Erosion is eating away our islands". "Our way of living, our culture, our tradition has been violated. We didn't contribute anything to what's happening, but yet we're on the front line," Mr Mosby said.
Torres Strait Islanders are standing together to demand climate justice from the Australian Government, and protect country, culture and communities for generations to come. Sign the petition. #TorresStrait8 #OurIslandsOurHome https://t.co/3G9suHrers pic.twitter.com/0jYd4LDpZA
— 350 dot org (@350) August 1, 2020
The Australian government denies responsibility for climate change, arguing it's a "global problem". The Torres Strait 8 lodged their claim with the United Nations back in May 2019 and are persisting in their battle. The government attempted to have their complaint blocked in August this year, dismissing the issue as a "problem for the future, rather than the present!". But the Torres Strait Islanders have hit back at the Government's claims, telling the ABC "They tried to say that it's not happening right now, but no-one has come up to see the impacts," Warraber Island claimant Kabay Tamu said. Sophie Marjanac, a UK-based lawyer representing the Torres Strait Islanders, said the case could set a global precedent as it's the first case brought by very climate-vulnerable people against their own home state.
To keep up to date with the case, follow the Torres Strait 8 here.
By Allison Licence
Allison Licence is a Sydney-based freelance writer and 1 Million Women volunteer who is passionate about the environment and finding ways to live more sustainably.