Warming temperatures, increasing rainfall, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels are threatening the 33 islands of the Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) nation (Office of the President, Republic of Kiribati n.d.a). The islands, which spread across the central Pacific Ocean, barely exceed six meters above sea level (The Government of Kiribati 2013). As a result, they are at great risk of being submerged. Until then, rising tides are eroding coasts, driving people to abandon their homes. The high tides are also contaminating the country’s freshwater supply by overwhelming wells with salt water and washing trash onshore. President Anote Tong has predicted freshwater contamination could render the country uninhabitable in 30-60 years. Kiribati, therefore, is poised to become one of the first countries to disappear because of climate change.
Consequently, Kiribati is searching for solutions. If rendered uninhabitable, the nation’s entire population – approximately 103,000 people according to 2013 World Bank estimates (World Bank n.d.) – will be forced to seek new homes. They may become the first permanent, environmentally-induced mass migration movement. While relocation is a last resort for the country, the government is preparing a migration program that “preserves the dignity of those being relocated and minimi[z]es the burden on the receiving countries” (Office of the President, Republic of Kiribati n.d.b). The “Migration with Dignity” strategy has two-parts: (1) create opportunities in receiving countries for those nationals that migrate; and (2) offer training and certification in Kiribati at levels recognized by receiving countries so that Kiribati migrants will be successful post-migration and contribute to their new communities (Office of the President, Republic of Kiribati n.d.b).
Despite oncoming displacement, the Kiribati people refrain from calling themselves “refugees.” For the islanders, the term carries notions of victimhood, marginalization, lack of agency, and dependency (ABC News 2014). Population statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) indicate that a few countries, so far, have provided refugee/asylum status to Kiribati nationals (UNHCR n.d.). Data also shows that the likelihood that a Kiribati national will succeed in applying for refugee status in these countries is extremely low. This trend may become problematic as UNHCR has warned that populations obliged to leave their own country due to climate change, such as the Kiribati people, could be rendered stateless (UNHCR 2009).
In the first CMSOnAir podcast, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) interviews Pelenise Alofa. Ms. Alofa is National Coordinator for the Kiribati Climate Action Network, a network of 20 organizations active on climate change. She also serves as the In-Country Coordinator for the Pacific Centre of Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific (USP). At USP, she works on the European Union/Global Climate Change Alliance project which aims to develop and strengthen countries’ ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change through capacity building, research and community engagement. Rachel Reyes, CMS’s Communications Coordinator, speaks with Ms. Alofa about the situation in Kiribati, her work to prepare others to migrate, and the future of the Kiribati people abroad.