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World Bank to Australia: trickle or tsunami, you choose

The World Bank has made an unprecedented plea to Australia and New Zealand to accept Pacific neighbours who will be without a home in decades to come.

Australia supports a limited intake of refugees, or asylum seekers, every year, but the Bank’s report, Pacific Possible – Labour Mobility, asks us to do more. For the first time, it asks us to consider a structured labour migration program that supports people whose homes and communities will no longer exist as rising sea levels force them out.

In the report, the Bank addresses Australian and New Zealand governments suggesting that to avoid massive and unorganised migration events it would be better to prepare our neighbours to contribute to our nations meaningfully now and manage the migration process. This would include providing employment and training and harnessing the labour opportunity.

The experience of small Pacific island nations Tuvalu and Kiribati of climate change is as enlightening as it is disturbing. Each of these nations is vulnerable to sea level rise, coastal erosion, salt-water contamination of fresh water stocks, storm surges and so on. Some islands in Kiribati are so small you can throw a stone from one side to the other. The growing effects of climate change will almost certainly see mass migration from these countries in coming decades.

Funafuti, Tuvalu by Michael Coghlan

Yet the World Bank poses the potential influx of people to Australia and New Zealand – as the Pacific Islands’ closest, largest and safest neighbours – as an opportunity. The Bank outlines the opportunity in terms of economic growth: growth to our economy, employment rates, government income.

However migration has only recently been recognised as an adaptation method to environmental crises in international climate change policies.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) only officially recognised the concept in 2010. The International Organisation for Migration was invited to contribute their expert knowledge on climate change migration for discussion at the 17th COP in 2012 making it one of the first times migration was considered alongside other adaptation methods.

Closer to home, two international mechanisms used to coordinate climate policy for Australia, New Zealand and our Pacific neighbours  – Pacific Islands Forum and the Framework for Pacific Regionalism  – have, until recently, omitted mention of environmental migration. Currently no clear migration route exists to allow our Pacific neighbours to come to Australia as a result of environmental displacement.

Many migrants and refugees will tell you living far from their homeland is not necessarily something they would choose. But the move and its long-term outcome can bring a positive and productive future for them, their families, and the country in which they end up. A recent good news story in Australia involves 17-year-old Hamed who is a political refugee from Afghanistan and a year 11 student at Hampton Park Secondary College, Victoria. While Hamed has permanent resident status in Australia, his mother and three younger siblings do not, they are in an overcrowded immigration camp in Indonesia. He and the Refugee Advocacy Network recently crowdfunded enough money to bring his family to Australia to apply for their permanent residency. In his thank you note to his supporters, Hamed said “It was not my choice to be a refugee, I see now it was bad luck of my country and my government”.

For the people of Tuvalu and Kiribati, the “inevitability” of relocation is an ever-growing concern.

It is a sad circumstance we’re witnessing: the loss of homelands for 1.2 million Pacific islanders. This is an environmental and social phenomenon that won’t stop with the Pacific. Bangladesh, India, Horn of Africa: people are making headlines from their environmental displacement all around the world. Imagine if we could get ahead of the curve, look at ways to harness the labour and energy that first generation migrants bring and prepare to take advantage of the situation to benefit not just the Pacific Islanders, but Australia?

And amongst the stories of hesitation and conservatism, the World Bank’s policy paper is a refreshing diverge from the trend.

While the international policy wheels turn, the Australian public can have a role beyond that of the witness.  We can define what climate change adaptation looks like for us, so we can be ready when it’s our turn. We can debate our role as neighbour to the Pacific as they witness the loss of a sovereign land.

Anne Boyce (left) and husband Craig (right) are hiring more seasonal employees from new migrant populations. Pictured here with employee Rajesh Marthala.

While there are no environmental migration routes for Pacific Islanders, there are temporary employment pathways for Pacific Islanders in Australia. Currie’s client Apple and Pear Australia (APAL) recently wrote about the meaningful and considerable success Craig and Annie Boyce had in their apple orchards by hiring Pacific Islanders and other migrants instead of backpackers. They found Pacific Islanders who came to work for 6 or 9-month periods were typically more reliable, more committed and worked harder than other seasonal workers (such as backpackers). Another Currie client Citrus Australia recently wrote in Australian Citrus News (print) about the available workforce in the Pacific that are ready and waiting to work for, and contribute to, citrus farms in Australia. These examples give us an insight into the meaningful contribution of Pacific Islanders to Australian society.

Seasonal workers from the Pacific islands and Torres Strait are helping citrus growers to overcome a shortage of local labour for picking and packing roles. Published first in Australian Citrus News.

As a company, Currie believes you can use business for good and we contribute 5% of our billable hours to organisations working in the public interest. One of those organisations is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) who stand for people like Hamed and his family. With the ASRC, we are developing a communications strategy for their internship program, as well as helping them develop tools that will assist and support their future communications.

In the face of this growing phenomenon, this is a small step; however, it calls to mind an excellent Margaret Mead quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

About Eleanor Meyer

Eleanor graduated from Monash University with a BA(Honours), a Diploma in Environmental Sciences and a Masters in Politics. Her studies began with Shakespeare and climate change - an odd combination, but she found both came in handy when she developed an app explaining correct ways to recycle. Eleanor is interested in commandeering digital technologies and using the power of business for good.

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