Addressing Climate Refugees and Displacement Involving Island Nations

Photo credit: Josh Haner/New York Times/Redux Pictures


Climate change – and climate displacement – are not merely threats of the future, but are already part of life for the inhabitants of drowning or sinking island nations now (though they will become even greater threats in the future if not addressed). Drowning or sinking islands, once considered merely part of the destructive potential of climate change, are a threat islands and low-lying states today must grapple with (Kelman 2013). Islands have already drowned underwater (Chow 2019). Tebunginako (translating to ‘’jutting out’’), once a village in the Republic of Kiribati island nation, saw its inhabitants relocate entirely as water inundated the island and overpowered the coastal defenses, to the point the only thing seen when the tide comes in is reportedly ‘’a church sitting in the middle of the sea’’ (Webb 2016). East Island in Hawaii, hit by Hurricane Walaka (a storm classified under category 5, the highest classification in the scale) in 2018, disappeared underwater (Mack 2018).

Perlamutrovy,  meaning ‘’the mother of all pearls’’ in Russian, is the name of an Arctic island that has submerged entirely in 2018 (Staalesen 2019). Five islands – part of the Solomon Islands, a Pacific archipelago – have also suffered this fate (Malo and Reuters Foundation, 2016). Climate change has the potential to deprive people of their homes and render them stateless. It is also a human rights problem – and its manifestations infringe on people’s human rights from a human security perspective. This article looks at some of the rights potentially at risk due to climate change and how it may be possible to restore them. 

Forms of climate change and their impact

Climate change impacts countries both in the forms of fast-onset events and slow-onset events. A fast-onset event, also termed as a rapid-onset event, can be a distinct event taking place in a matter of days or hours. A slow-onset event occurs due to gradual changes occurring over several years or an increased frequency or intensity of recurring events (UNFCCC, 2012). Fast-onset events include droughts, storms, and floods, while slow-onset events include increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, acidification of water, soil salinity, and land degradation. Therefore, sunken islands are not the only form climate change can take (de Sherbinin 2020). While slow-onset events may not pose as immediate a danger as fast-onset events, the former are more likely to result in short-term displacement and if part of a chain, can diminish household assets enough to encourage long-term migration. In fact, slow-onset events are more likely to drive permanent migration (Human Rights Council 2018).

Slow-onset changes like sea level rises produce the most impact and make lands uninhabitable in island nations like Kiribati, for example (Garcia 2019). The worse it gets, climate change has the potential to accentuate the problem. Empirical evidence shows that storms and weather-based events have gotten worse since 2008, displacing an average of 24.1 million people annually and globally (IDMC 2020). Most recently, the United Nations released a climate change report issuing a ‘’code red for humanity’’, warning that island nations the world over are on the ‘’edge of extinction’’ and human-caused climate change will cause ‘’unprecedented’’ extreme events unless immediate global actions are taken (IPCC 2021). Similarly, a 2016 United Nations report shows that half of all households have already suffered due to sea level rise on the island of Kiritimati, a coral atoll in the Republic of Kiribati and one of the most climate-vulnerable inhabited islands on the planet. In addition, one-in-seven of all relocations in Kiribati occur because of environmental change (Oakes, Milan, and Campbell 2016). People have already moved away from Kiritimati for these reasons and more (Berchin, Valduga, Garcia, and Guerra 2017).

How does climate change impact populations and their human rights?

Climate change has already displaced many inhabitants of island nations internally. In the worst case scenario, it may very well force people to leave their nations entirely. Yet these people, informally called ‘’climate refugees’’ or ‘’climate migrants’’, have relatively little legal protection. Neither term has any recognition under international law, and nor does ‘’environmental refugee’’ – even though the UN Environment Program (UNEP) researcher Essam El-Hinnawi used it in the 1985 report titled “Environmental Refugees’’ (El-Hinnawi, 1985). Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution – nowhere is the climate mentioned. Likewise, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines the refugee as a person who has a ‘’well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’’ – the climate, again, goes unmentioned (United Nations). 

However, one also cannot deny that climate change and its effects reduce people’s access to certain rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). For instance, people’s right to life – Article 25, the right to food and shelter. Climate change threatens food supply, and by proxy, the right to food. Sea level rise and flooding brings saltwater onto agricultural lands and makes them uncultivable, threatening island nationals’ access to food. Climate change, through increasing sea surface temperatures, damages coral reefs – natural breeding and feeding grounds for fishes – and thereby reduces fish stock, the other major source of food for members of island nations (Salem 2020). Climate change threatens housing and the right to shelter both directly and indirectly – damaging or even outright destroying buildings and settlements, and displacing the land that is the base for many homes in low-lying islands, respectively (France 24 2020; US Climate Resilience Toolkit). Yet another right violated is Article 3 – the right to life – is one of multiple human rights impacted by climate change. Climate change threatens and kills people on island- and low-lying nations in the forms of storms, droughts, floods, and spread of diseases (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2015). Another human right that climate change threatens is Article 15, the right all people have to a nationality. As earlier discussed, certain people may stand to lose their very nations

Additionally, even if climate migrants may not be considered ‘’traditional’’ refugees or asylum-seekers, it would still be wrong to say climate ‘refugees’ go totally unrecognized internationally. While addressing the case of Ioane Teitiota and his family from Kiribati who sought asylum in New Zealand, the UN Human Rights Committee has ruled that governments cannot send climate refugees or migrants home, acknowledging that the effects of climate change “pose a serious threat to the right to life of people living in countries like Kiribati” (Human Rights Committee 2020). The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM), a major global agreement on migration, has explicitly referred to the need to address protection gaps for people displaced by climate change (Thomas and Yarnell 2018). While the compact has no legal force, it is the forerunner for the International Migration Review Forum, which will review climate change and migration in 2022 (Angenendt and Koch 2019).

What can be done?

Voluntary immigration programs have arisen as potential and actual solutions. New Zealand has created an annual opportunity lottery called the Pacific Access Ballot, allowing 75 Kiribati citizens every year to resettle in the former country (Alexis-Martin, Dyke, Turnbull and Malin 2019; New Zealand Immigration 2021). In October 2017, New Zealand announced the world’s first ‘’humanitarian visa’’, enabling 100 Pacific Islanders facing climate change and its effects to move to New Zealand (Anderson 2017). However, due to Pacific Islanders largely preferring to stay and adapt their living conditions, reduce emissions, and only ‘’migrate with dignity’’ as a relative last resort, applicants for the Pacific Access Ballot have been few in number and the government eventually abandoned the proposed humanitarian visa (RNZ 2018; Hall 2019). Many inhabitants of island- or low-lying nations, simply put, do not want to leave their homes – not even at such great risk – and prefer to adapt instead if possible. In 2008, Pacific Island leaders signed the Niue Declaration, recognizing peoples’ wish to live in their home countries and encouraged signatory nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change (Pacific Islands Forum 2018). Even then, appetite for humanitarian visas still exists – US Senator Ed Markey recently introduced a bill recognizing “climate-displaced persons” that would resettle 50,000 people in the US each year, and President Joe Biden has ordered a determination on identifying and resettling people displaced directly or indirectly by climate change (US Congress, Senate, S.2565, 2019). 

Voluntary relocation within the island is another strategy (The Fijian Government 2019). Outside of small atoll islands, Pacific scholars agree that most displacement in vulnerable islands will likely be within borders (Perumal 2018). Vanuatu, an island state, created a comprehensive policy on climate change and disaster-induced displacement, entailing developing safeguards and standard operating procedures for planned relocation (Risser and Wehner 2017). In 2014, residents of Vunidogoloa, Fiji, relocated inland, where hundreds of thousands of dollars went into constructing new houses, fish ponds, and farms – more villages are earmarked for potential relocation. Relocation has also happened in the Solomon Islands, where there are plans to relocate the capital, Taro (less than 2m above sea level), to higher ground (IOM Australia). Papua New Guinea has also been relocating its people from the Cartaret Islands (1.2m above sea level), albeit at a slow rate (Dannenberg, Frumkin, Hess, and Ebi 2019). In the low-lying country of Bangladesh, a report by the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCD) identifies and proposes transforming inland towns far away from vulnerable coastal areas into “climate-resilient, migrant-friendly” towns that can house millions of internal migrants displaced by coastal flooding, erosion, and other effects of climate change, as well as ideas such as providing scholarships to encourage students to move inland for studies (Ahmed, Hossain, Tasnim, Mannan, and Huq 2019; Alam, Shafiqul, Huq, Islam, and Hoque 2018).

Other solutions have included elevating the islands above the rising seas (Pala 2020). Some islands are naturally growing in elevation, so even moving people from more danger-prone islands to growing islands may be viable  – and in the case of Perlamutrovy, a dozen new islands appeared even as an old one disappeared underwater (Gertcyk 2019). It is possible to artificially raise the height of islands like Kiribati by raising dirt from the bottom of nearby lagoons or stabilize water flow by rebuilding old roads built on coral reefs as elevated bridges. The Republic of Maldives has created an island to house 50,000 people (Peters 2020). Though dredging sediment damages coral reef ecosystems, the Kiribati government sees the process as necessary as it would be easier than relocating key infrastructurey Japan – following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, which sunk and ruined massive amounts of coastal land – reversed said land loss along 200 km of the coastline in a few years, through returning coastal areas to their original heights or even increasing them to counteract sea level rises far faster than the one projected to occur this very century (Esteban, Jamero, Nurse, Yamamoto, Takagi, Thao, Mikami, Kench, Onuki, Nellas, Crichton, Valenzuela, Chadwick, Avelino, Tan, and Shibayama 2019). The people of Tubigon, Bohol, in Philippines adapted to regular flooding through piling up coral stones to expand their islands, rebuilding their houses’ foundations and placing them on stilts, or using all bamboo furniture called ‘’lantay’’ to elevate themselves and important items during home flooding (Jamero, Esteban, and Onuki 2016). 

Even simpler strategies, like planting salt-resistant and heat-resistant crops, transitioning from fish to lower cost aquaculture like clams, or sowing food crops along coastlines to reduce flooding, erosion, and reliance on coastal fisheries, can ease the effects of climate change (Mcleod, Bruton-Adams, Förster, Franco, Gaines, Gorong, James, Posing-Kulwaum, Tara, and Terk 2019). Education has greatly supported island communities in implementing these endeavors, with women’s groups and local conservation NGOs – among others – leading.

Ultimately, such forward-thinking strategies can go a long way in preserving the right to food, shelter, and nationality, and thereby reduce or prevent climate change-induced displacement (Barnett and Michael 2018). However, while some island communities may be able to adapt, some will face the limits of adaptation and hence need to rely on external migration in order to survive (Mcleod, Bruton-Adams, Förster, Franco, Gaines, Gorong, James, Posing-Kulwaum, Tara, and Terk 2019).


Climate change is not an issue of the future, but one of the present – and it is not just an issue of science, but one of human rights. People living in island countries and communities are at risk of losing multiple valuable human rights – if nothing is done to help them adapt, be it through island and home elevation or migration (internal or external).

Hence, the US Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights (USIDHR) works tirelessly to create the next generation of human rights consultants through our Human Rights Education Training program. These consultants are trained to be able to deliver workshops, seminars and provide educational support to schools, colleges, hospitals, and even businesses that can implement human rights throughout their activities. The self-paced 8-module certification training for human rights consultants gives the tools to educate others on how to advocate for the rights of themselves and others. If you’re interested in becoming part of the change, you can register for the human rights training here (USIDHR).


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Samin Huq

Samin Huq

Summer Intern

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US Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights (USIDHR) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC. Its main purpose is to advance education for all. Through its EduforEveryChild program, USIDHR helps kids at-risk of poverty go to school by supporting their education for an entire year. So far, they have helped hundreds of kids go to school by awarding them the Edu-box  containing school supplies, materials and necessaries to go to school. USIDHR also provides online courses and training on human rights, human trafficking, diplomatic protocol and etiquette, and business consulting. Other programs include Let Her Lead, an initiative aimed at empowering young women through education and training, and Religious Pluralism for promoting religious freedom for all.  

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