By Mij Tanith, XRSA member and Safe Harbour Coordinator

When I was asked to write an article on climate refugees, I thought “Oh, rising sea levels. Small, low-lying Pacific islands. What a perfect fit between my long-term support for refugees and my XR activism.” But a few forays into relevant articles disabused me of the simpleness of the connection.  So here goes …

Firstly, there is an internationally accepted difference between refugees and migrants. A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

But currently, there is no legally binding definition for those people fleeing environmental peril, and so no legal protection.

In July 2018, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was negotiated and adopted by a large number of heads of government who met in Morocco.

(Sadly, Australia did not sign this contract, and under the Coalition government, its foreign aid budget has continued to shrink)

The Global Contract recognises that refugees and migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times. However, migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks.

Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law. This Global contract is non-binding, and so, by legal definition, there is no such person as a “climate refugee”.

However, this Global Compact refers to migrants and presents a cooperative framework addressing migration in all its dimensions. It points to the need for countries to develop safe migration frameworks and practices that allow for increasing levels of climate-induced human movement.

But they also need to address other concerns, including the environmental issues that may cause people to leave their homes in ways that are often unplanned and chaotic.

So what can people like us, living in one of the wealthiest countries on this earth, do to address these environmental issues, particularly in the neighbouring region of Oceania?

As you know, over the past few years, the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, have been considerable.

Obviously, we need to ramp up our commitment to fighting the practices that drive rapid and dangerous climate change. In addition, though, we need to persuade, through non-violent resistance, our government to provide aid that will help develop the psychological, as well as the social and environmental resilience of these island communities.

We need to understand people’s deep connection to place, and we need to stop assuming that “climate refugees” have no part in their decision to leave or to stay, or that they are not capable of developing systems and practices designed to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Most importantly, we need our government to stop reducing human life to questions of money and economics. Because the premises on which economic “wisdom” is based are no longer holding true.

At the end of the day, whether people are labelled refugees or climate migrants, Australia’s response to them will have to be a lot kinder.

All of which leads me to think about the way in which our government has poured billions of dollars into a couple of specific island communities in our neighbourhood …

I’m talking, of course, about Manus Island and Nauru, where the deliberately cruel off-shore detention policy has not only created untold misery for so many, but has also seen an unconscionable waste of public money and high levels of corruption.

The imposition of large numbers of refugees on islander populations has seen a fragmenting of these communities at a time when we should be doing all we can to help build cohesion and resilience. The money spent on security alone has skewed the fragile economies of the islands and created an unsustainable dependence on Australian dollars.

In short, our government’s treatment of the communities on Nauru and Manus Island are a cautionary tale in how not to behave.