A new policy paper from the World Bank argues that Australia and New Zealand should allow open immigration from Pacific island nations, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, which face pressing threats from climate change. Called Pacific Possible, the paper says that people from these nations should be able to look for work and permanent residence in Australia and New Zealand now, before the effects of climate change force the issue.

Low-lying archipelagos like Tuvalu and Kiribati are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels as a result of climate change. Land in these areas is already being flooded by rising waters. The World Bank now says a structured migration pattern should begin now, instead of a forced and rushed one in later generations.

“The worsening impacts of climate change have provided a new moral imperative for providing open access,” according to the Pacific Possible paper. It forecasts migration of about 1,300 people from these islands annually.

“The two governments would prefer a slow outward flow resulting from voluntary migration and do not wish their peoples to be treated as ‘refugees’ fleeing a hopeless economic and environmental situation.”

17 people from Pacific nations, including 11 from Tuvalu and five from Kiribati, have already claimed refugee status in New Zealand, with climate change as part of their case. Since the refugees convention does not currently recognize climate change as grounds for refugee status, 13 of these people have been rejected, with four yet to be determined.

The report’s author, Professor Stephen Howes from the Australian National University, said open access across national borders was unusual, but that there is a precedent in some circumstances.

“There has to be something very special, very important to allow that free movement. It seems to us that climate change might provide such unusual circumstances as to give rise to open access.”

He emphasized that such migration would not be “about emptying out those countries,” but would focus on making them economically and environmentally sustainable.

He added that creating diaspora communities would be essential to aiding later generations of immigrants.

“If you don’t have that avenue for permanent migration, you won’t establish a diaspora, and the most successful migrant communities we’ve seen, for instance, the Indian community in Australia, thrive because of the personal and community links an established diaspora provides.”

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said climate change migration is not a priority, though the foreign affairs minister has favored migration to fill labor shortages in Australia. According to that department, “Australia believes that the best response to climate change impacts, where feasible, is effective adaptation and well-supported internal relocation rather than resettlement.”

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