And could be a lifeline across the Pacific
By Jane McAdam
For many years, I have been calling for the Australian government – along with other governments – to play its part in assisting Pacific communities affected by the adverse impacts of climate change and disasters.
Our region is already experiencing some of the most drastic effects of climate change. Pacific communities are showing enormous innovation and resilience in the face of these challenges, but as a matter of international solidarity and climate justice, additional support and cooperation is needed.
One way of providing assistance is by creating migration pathways for people who wish to move. Australia’s recent Pacific Engagement Visa is one such example – enabling up to 3,000 workers and their families from the Pacific and Timor-Leste to migrate permanently to Australia each year.
In addition, the announcement this week of an Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty is groundbreaking. Under this deal, Australia will provide migration pathways for people from Tuvalu facing the existential threat of climate change. It is the world’s first bilateral agreement on climate mobility.
How the new visa program will work
Based on the principles of “neighbourliness, care and mutual respect”, the treaty is a result of a request by Tuvalu for Australia to support and assist its efforts on climate change, security and human mobility.
According to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, “developed nations have a responsibility to provide assistance” to countries like Tuvalu that are deeply impacted by climate change.
Under the treaty, Australia will implement a special visa arrangement to allow Tuvaluans to work, study and live in Australia. This is not a refugee visa, but rather will allow up to 280 Tuvaluans (from a population of around 11,200) to migrate to Australia each year – presumably on a permanent basis.
They will be able to access Australian education, health care, and income and family support on arrival. This is a welcome development that will provide people with both legal and psychological security. Despite longstanding “promises” that Australia would not sit by as disasters continue to affect the Pacific, this program provides the long-awaited security that many have wanted.
Historically, most Pacific visa programs in Australia (and the region) have been tied to labor mobility. And none has specifically referenced climate change as a driving rationale. In contrast, the measures announced this week are deliberately framed in the context of climate change and – furthermore – are not tied purely to work.
Indeed, it remains to be seen just how far the special visas may extend. Beyond “work” and “study”, the treaty says Tuvaluans can also come to Australia to “live”. This implies the visa may potentially provide a humanitarian pathway for people who want – or need – to move. This would include older people, who would not qualify for existing Pacific labor migration programs.
Despite the threats posed by climate change, however, most Pacific peoples do not want to leave their homes. Being dislocated from home is one of the greatest forms of cultural, social and economic loss people can suffer. It can often lead to inter-generational trauma.
The treaty itself recognizes Tuvaluans’ “deep, ancestral connections to land and sea”, and pledges Australia will work with Tuvalu to help people “stay in their homes with safety and dignity”. At the same time, people want to know they have safe options to move if they need to – with dignity and choice.
How novel is the new treaty?
While there are other programs in the Pacific that facilitate mobility, this is the first to do so specifically in the context of climate change. It also operates differently from arrangements implemented by New Zealand and the United States.
As part of the “realm” of New Zealand, for instance, people from the countries of Niue, Tokelau and Cook Islands are considered New Zealand citizens, so they have the right to move there if they wish.
New Zealand has also long had its “Pacific Access” visa category and the Samoa quota resident visa, which together enable around 2,400 people to move from the Pacific to New Zealand on a permanent basis each year.
The United States, meanwhile, has compacts of free association with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, which enable eligible citizens to enter the US visa-free and live and work there indefinitely. However, those migrants do not have access to many government benefits and can easily fall through the cracks.
Last year, Argentina announced a special humanitarian visa program for people displaced from 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean due to disasters. Unlike the Australia–Tuvalu treaty, which allows for migration in anticipation of climate-related disasters, access to the Argentinian program is only available after displacement has occurred. As yet, no one has used the scheme.
For at least two decades, Pacific governments have made perennial requests for special visa pathways or relocation to Australia for their citizens.
In 2019, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed that Australia accept people from Tuvalu and other Pacific countries on account of projected climate impacts – but in exchange for “their territorial seas, their vast exclusive economic zones, including the preservation of their precious fisheries reserves”.
He was shot down by the then-prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, who labelled it “imperial thinking”.
What could come next?
Last week, Pacific Leaders endorsed a world-first Pacific framework on climate mobility, which has gone relatively unnoticed, despite the Australia–Tuvalu announcement.
I had the privilege of working and consulting with Pacific governments and communities to draft the early versions of the framework. It will hopefully inspire the creation of further visa arrangements and other concrete mobility mechanisms to ensure Pacific peoples have dignified pathways to move when they wish, as well as support and assistance to remain in place when possible.
Earlier this year, Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa suggested the Pacific could create a European Union-like entity, “based on cooperation and integration”, that would enable free movement across the region.
If enacted, it would follow a similar agreement signed by leaders in eastern Africa that specifically allows people in that region to cross borders in anticipation of or in response to disasters.
Though this is still a long way off in the Pacific, the agreement between Australia and Tuvalu could help pave the way for similar mobility pathways across the region and – ultimately – a broader regional scheme. If, and when, that time comes, the choice, agency and dignity of affected communities must be front and center.