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  Policy Brief 10 - Climate Change, Disasters and Mobility: A Roadmap for Australian Action


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Kaldor Centre's, Professor Jane McAdam, and Director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program, Jonathan Pryke, discuss their latest policy brief with Lauren Martin.



Executive summary 

Across the globe, the adverse impacts of disasters and climate change are prompting millions of people to move. Disasters now displace many more people within their countries each year than conflict, and the Asia-Pacific region is the hardest hit. Between 2008 and 2018, this region alone saw more than 80 per cent of all new disaster displacement. 

Australia cannot afford to ignore the fact that in its own region, internal and cross-border displacement within and from the Pacific Islands is likely to increase as disasters intensify and become more frequent, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. While Australia cannot stop such displacement altogether, it can implement policy changes now that would help to reduce its scale and impact. Preventative measures, such as mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction, along with proactive measures, such as enhanced mobility, could significantly reduce the risk of future displacement, and thereby also reduce economic, social and human costs and suffering. 

Most Pacific Islanders want to remain in their homes, and this should be enabled to the extent possible through disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development policies. At the same time, there is widespread recognition that planning for mobility is necessary so that people can move before disaster strikes. Smart migration policies can provide people with choices to take control of their own lives, rather than being displaced when disasters occur. 

This report focuses on the role of mobility as a release valve for Pacific Islanders at risk of displacement in the context of disasters and climate change. It demonstrates why Australia should proactively develop laws and policies that enable people in the Pacific region to move out of harm’s way, thereby harnessing migration as a climate change adaptation strategy in its own right. 

Key findings and recommendations 

Section 1: Introduction

Internal and cross-border displacement within and from the Pacific Islands is likely to increase as disasters intensify and become more frequent. Most Pacific Islanders want to remain in their homes, and this should be enabled to the extent possible through disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development policies. At the same time, there is widespread recognition that planning for mobility is necessary so that people can move before disaster strikes. 

Section 2: The scale and nature of displacement 

Most displacement in the Pacific is temporary and internal, but it is a phenomenon recurring with increasing regularity. Compounding the challenge of disasters is the dramatic youth bulge in many Pacific countries, along with a shortage of employment opportunities, which will affect people’s need, ability and desire to move. Section 3: Existing legal protection and practices Australia must not send people back to countries where their lives are at risk because of the impacts of disasters or climate change. While refugee law and human rights law provide some protection, they are a partial solution. Humanitarian visas could be created for people from the Pacific who are adversely affected by the impacts of disasters or climate change. Protection could also be provided on a prima facie basis to Pacific Islanders already in Australia at the time a disaster strikes where it is unsafe or unreasonable for them to return home. Countries in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, should develop bilateral and/or regional plans to address climate change-related displacement and mobility, which could include a regional, rights-based framework. 

Section 4: Global developments 

Australia should implement the roadmap provided by the Nansen Initiative’s Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the context of Disasters and Climate Change, endorsed by Australia in 2015. Targeted policy interventions on disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, humanitarian protection, migration and planned relocation could reduce the risk and extent of future displacement linked to the impacts of disasters and climate change in the Pacific. 

Section 5: Regional developments 

Some Pacific governments have developed guidelines on internal displacement and planned relocations in the context of climate change and disasters, and Fiji has established a trust fund to support relocations. Like New Zealand, Australia should contribute to Fiji’s Climate Relocation and Displaced Peoples Trust Fund for Communities and Infrastructure. 

Section 6: Why Australia needs to act

Responding to displacement is not just a humanitarian imperative, but it is also in Australia’s national interest. The stability and prosperity of Pacific Island countries directly impact Australia, and Australia benefits from the economic and social contributions Pacific Islanders make as temporary and permanent migrants. Migration employment programs will be undermined by displacement-driven instability, directly affecting those Australian employers who have become dependent on reliable and effective workers from the Pacific. 

Section 7: The role of migration in enhancing mobility 

Migration can be a form of adaptation to climate change. It provides an important risk management strategy that can enhance the resilience of those who move, as well as those who stay behind. If only one per cent of the Pacific’s population were permitted to work permanently in Australia, this would bring more benefits to the Pacific than Australia’s aid contribution. Smart migration policies can provide people with choices to take control of their own lives, rather than being displaced when disaster strikes. Policies could include bilateral or regional free movement agreements, training programs that prepare individuals to find work abroad, and the creation of special visa categories for people living in at-risk areas. Pacific Islanders could also be given preferential access to existing labour, education or family visas. For migration to form a larger part of Australia’s proactive response to reducing climate change-related displacement risks, human dignity must be front and centre. Migration can be disruptive to family ties, cultures, individual identity and belonging, and this should not be compounded by the risks of exploitation or trapping migrants in low socio-economic stasis. 

Section 8: Australia’s existing Pacific migration schemes 

The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) should become the primary employment source for Australia’s agriculture and horticulture industries by 2030. The scheme already has bipartisan support within Australia, and overwhelmingly positive reviews by Pacific Islanders who have participated in it. The Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) provides a longer-term temporary work option, which enables people to earn and remit more income, and gives regional Australian businesses longer-term employment confidence. However, the scheme should be changed to enable workers’ families to accompany them, given the detrimental effects of prolonged separation. It should also contain a pathway to permanent residence, especially if it is to provide a longterm strategy for Pacific Islanders who are at risk from the impacts of disasters and climate change. Australia should create a Pacific Access Category visa, with appropriate settlement support, for Pacific Island countries which do not have free movement arrangements with other states. The Australian government should harness the Pacific diaspora’s knowledge and experience in discussions about all future migration schemes.  


Our people want to remain and live meaningful lives on their islands. We must continue to push for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation measures to allow our people to live in our islands. However, … we cannot ignore the fact that the movement of people needs to be discussed and bought [sic] out into the open from the shadows of disaster risk reduction and climate change debate. Failing to do so will be like burying our heads in the sand.1



  • 1. 'Chairperson's Summary' in Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, Human Mobility, Natural Disasters and Climate Change in the Pacific: Outcome Report (Pacific Regional Consulation, May 2013) 24
The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.