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To Drown Or Exit:

An Assessment of Climate-Induced Migration in Tuvalu

Regine Sun
July 9th, 2024

In a recorded address to the UN COP26 summit, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, stood knee-deep in seawater whilst delivering his speech. The message was clear: “We are sinking.” Current estimates suggest that by 2050, half of Funafuti, its capital, will be flooded daily. By 2100, 95% of Tuvalu will be underwater. The island-state and its 11,000 Tuvaluans face the imminent danger of complete extinction as a sovereign nation. Noting the situation’s severity, Tuvalu signed the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union in December 2023, marking their first visa arrangement that directly links citizen migration pathways to climate change. Under this agreement, up to 280 Tuvaluans, selected by lottery, can live, study, and work in Australia yearly. This comes on the heels of other general mobility programmes, such as New Zealand’s “Pacific Access” visa. Tuvaluans now face the tough choice: to leave, or to stay?


To what extent is climate-induced migration beneficial for the Tuvaluan citizens? On the surface, migration may seem like a rosy option as it opens new paths for Tuvaluans and ensures their survival. However, existing relocation policies are still inadequate in preserving both the cultural identities of Tuvaluans and their historical ties to their geographical homeland. Instead, these policies should formally partition shared spaces for climate-vulnerable Tuvaluans to conduct community building. An international legal framework must also be established to ease the adjustment of individuals suffering from climate-induced displacement.


Climate-Induced Migration: Pros and Cons


            On the one hand, migration offers opportunities for climate-vulnerable Tuvaluans, especially the youth. Tuvaluan youths are eager to migrate to Australia for work and further studies, with many already leaving through seasonal worker schemes due to local unemployment. Migrating also affords them access to more resources that can be used in fighting climate change, such as increased remittances or platforms for awareness-raising. Moreover, under the Falepili Union, Tuvaluan migrants can access perks enjoyed by Australian citizens, from education to healthcare. Most importantly, with rising sea levels already flooding Tuvaluan villages, some locals look towards moving abroad for mere survival.


            At the same time, climate-induced migration may result in significant cultural loss. For many South Pacific islanders, “land is life, without land there is no life.” Their place attachment begets a “stay here and die” mindset in response to climate change. Tuvaluan people read the trails that nature leaves behind in Tuvalu; for instance, the position of the moon will inform them of the species they can fish for, while the movements of ants and birds warn them of strong winds. Tuvalu is also a Christian country with strong traditions that permeate everyday life; from 6.45pm to 7pm daily, pedestrians and vehicles stop to respect a national time of devotion. Not only does climate-induced migration displace Tuvaluans from their lands, it also deprives them of practicing tradition with the Tuvaluan community. The Falepili Union mentions nothing about the partitioning of territory for Tuvaluans to rebuild their community. In the long run, this is pertinent as without both the community and the physical space, traditions may not be able to withstand the test of time.


            Further, it may be difficult for these climate-vulnerable Tuvaluan migrants to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. With the sudden influx of Tuvaluans, disgruntled locals may come to perceive them as opportunistic migrants competing with them for a spot in the city, when the reasons behind their involuntary diaspora are much more complex and nuanced. Regardless of their impetus behind migrating, Tuvaluan migrants have to accept their status as “second class” citizens abroad. Notably, there are currently no international legal protections and frameworks in place for victims of climate-induced displacement. Tuvaluan migrants may be deprived of the necessary assistance and may struggle to bridge the gap between living in a self-sufficient society and a commercialized one. One case in point is the Tuvaluan community that moved to New Zealand under the Pacific Access category and are struggling to earn a living. Similarly, while the Falepili Union may seem attractive at first glance, the fact that Tuvaluan communities in both Tuvalu and Australia were not consulted on its formation has sparked worries that Tuvaluan migrants will not be adequately acknowledged or supported. For these Tuvaluans, migration encompasses not simply a lack of money, but also no family, no land, and no forms of subsistence, leaving them, once again, vulnerable to external forces. Addressing climate-induced displacement in international law grants its victims legitimacy in status. This places them on a better footing to negotiate the terms of relocation policies and spurs acceptance among locals.


            Ultimately, climate-induced migration uproots Tuvaluan peoples from their lands, disconnecting them from their cultural practices and forcing them into unfamiliar societies and ways of living. While this relocation will help vulnerable Tuvaluans seek shelter, it is unclear whether their national sovereignty and culture can be preserved under existing policies. It is thus all the more important that relocation policies, both bilateral and international, are constantly improved upon. As a preventative measure against cultural loss, the Tuvaluan government is already discussing the creation of a virtual reality that allows future generations of Tuvaluans to interact with one another and stay connected to their customs. They are also considering other solutions, such as migration to its larger atoll islands. However, Tuvalu cannot do this alone. The international community must work with Tuvalu to make climate-induced migration work.   

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