LONDON - Pacific islanders may be among the first people in the world forced to migrate as a clear result of climate change, but thorny legal obstacles stand in the way of that happening successfully, researchers warned Thursday.
Addressing those now, and putting in place a regional plan to deal with migration before it picks up speed, will be key to avoiding a future emergency, they said.
"I believe in preparedness rather than humanitarian crisis," said Cosmin Corendea, a senior legal expert at the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and lead author of a study released on the sidelines of international climate talks in Bonn.
The study, based on household surveys and other research in Fiji and Vanuatu, looks at how human rights, climate change and migration law need to be joined up in the Pacific.
It explores how the region's unusual hybrid legal systems — built on old traditional law overlaid by modern national law — could be harmonized to deal with migration.
Many Pacific islanders, for instance, consider group rights more important than individual ones. That is a challenge in accepting the importance of the international human rights protections at the core of migration law, because those focus on individual rights, Corendea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"They don't perceive human rights as we see them. They see them as Western values imposed by government," he said by telephone. "That means they don't feel very comfortable with a human rights approach."
Because of such concerns, combined with a lack of time and resources, few countries have put in place any legal framework to guide climate-related migration, either when their own citizens leave or other islanders arrive, he added.
Today that is not a significant problem, as migration flows are relatively small and most islanders have a long history of welcoming migrants, dating back to when people traveled regularly between islands looking for food and other essentials.
But as resources, including land, water, food and jobs, become scarcer on Pacific islands and migration increases, that generosity may start to wear thin, Corendea warned.
"If someone comes and takes your job ... people start to not necessarily be so open anymore," he said.
Group land rights
Across the islands, up to 90 percent of land is held in customary tenure by groups rather than individuals, meaning it usually cannot be bought or sold, the study noted.
That suggests finding new land for migrants is likely to be extremely difficult, particularly with 70 percent of people in Vanuatu and 58 percent in Fiji telling researchers they would be unwilling to see outsiders occupy any of their land, even if they were financially compensated.
More than 90 percent of people surveyed in Fiji and Vanuatu also said they do not believe their government has a responsibility to help incoming migrants, the report noted.
They cited competition for land and jobs, alongside cultural differences, as reasons. "From this perspective, forced relocation is extremely problematic," the report noted.
Wesley Morgan, an international relations expert at the University of the South Pacific, noted that for many island communities with deep ties to land, moving elsewhere "is generally considered an option of last resort."
Some countries are exploring ways around the roadblocks. Kiribati, one of the lowest-lying and most threatened nations in the region, has bought 20 square kilometers of land on a Fijian island from the Church of England, to use for farming and perhaps eventually to resettle families.
But other early efforts to find land for relocation have been a struggle. Migrant families from the low-lying Carteret Islands, part of Papua New Guinea, spent more than a decade trying to find land and funding to move to Bougainville on the mainland. Some have now relocated.
Other migrants are turning to New Zealand and Australia, the region's dominant economies. In 2014, a New Zealand judge granted residency to a family from Tuvalu, in part on humanitarian grounds related to climate change.
At U.N. climate talks in Warsaw in 2013, governments established an international mechanism to figure out how to deal with unavoidable losses and damage from climate change, including migration and displacement. But it has made little concrete progress on the issue so far, experts say.
Answers needed soon
With more than 90 percent of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu already hit by climate-related hazards such as flooding, storms and saltwater intrusion over the last decade, finding better answers to migration questions soon is important, the UNU-EHS study noted.
It urges Pacific island nations to not only work on their own national and customary laws, to ensure they are fit to deal with migration pressures, but also to develop a regional policy that can head off problems such as countries beginning to demand visas for travel among islands.
Creating a regional plan — rather than waiting for any global climate migration deals to come into effect — "will better help the countries preserve their values and traditions," Corendea said.
Countries should also recognize climate-related migration is a problem that is here to stay, he said.
"We can't talk about climate change anymore without talking about migration," he said. "It's happening."