Nov. 3, 2021

On October 27, 2021, Barbara Buckinx, LISD Associate Research Scholar and Director of the Project on Self-Determination and Emerging Issues at LISD, and  Clement Yow Mulalap, Legal Advisor to the Permanent Mission of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United Nations, delivered the opening plenary and keynote for the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.  Buckinx spoke about 'Sea-level rise and migration in the Pacific region: Considering identity, community, and solidarity.' 

According to the latest projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, man-made global warming is likely to cause global sea levels to rise significantly over the course of this century, presenting an existential physical threat to the territorial integrity of low-lying island States. Human communities have always adapted to their environment, but in the next several decades, adaptation measures required by rising sea levels may need to occur in an accelerated time frame and include measures that are technologically and/or psychologically exceptionally demanding. Before permanent inundation may arise, communities in such locations will need to contend with a host of threats to their way of life, such as tidal flooding, storm surges, and the salinization of drinking water sources. Some individuals, and perhaps entire communities, may choose or be forced to emigrate. 

Currently, most migration in the region involves individuals in search of employment or educational opportunities. Citizens of countries such as the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia, for instance, can move to the United States visa-free, and many do. Migration-as-adaptation is not an unknown or new phenomenon, however. In one prominent example, the Banaban community from Ocean Island in present-day Kiribati moved in 1945 to Rabi Island in present-day Fiji. Mass relocation remains rare, but as the threat posed by sea-level rise increases, so will the pressure for entire communities to move internally or emigrate.  

Drawing on work conducted at LISD, the opening plenary and keynote explored the potential impacts of sea-level rise on Pacific island States – in particular, their conceptions of identity and community – and considered how the international community can best stand in solidarity with populations in low-lying island States. Many of the most affected States are composed of island chains dispersed across vast distances, and for many Pacific island nations, the social, cultural, and political conception of the community extends beyond the coast and the reef into the high seas. In contrast to the prevailing narrative of the sea as a source of separation stands the idea of the Blue Pacific, which unites Pacific island communities through shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean. Allies in the international community – other States, non-governmental organizations, and individuals – will need to consider how the values and practices that underpin these communities can be protected and maintained in an era of sea-level rise.