Pacific migration and Australia

By 2100, we don’t know what the Pacific will look like. While the effects of climate on migration patterns to date have been subdued, there is a real possibility the slow transformation of climate will make many Pacific islands harder to inhabit. It is the one area of the world that is already seeing small people movement trends based on climate.

It’s time to start thinking seriously about movements of people within the Pacific. Australia should lead this conversation, given its economic dominance.

Here is a list countries in the Pacific, sorted by population:

 Pitcairn Islands (UK) 70
 Tokelau (NZ) 1,000
 Norfolk Island (Australia) 2,000
 Niue (NZ) 2,000
 Nauru 10,000
 Tuvalu 11,000
 Wallis and Futuna (France) 13,000
 Cook Islands (NZ) 15,000
 Palau 21,000
 Northern Mariana Islands (US) 50,000
 American Samoa (US) 55,000
 Marshall Islands 56,000
 Federated States of Micronesia 101,000
 Tonga 104,000
 Kiribati 106,000
 Guam (US) 161,000
 Samoa 190,000
 New Caledonia (France) 259,000
 Vanuatu 265,000
 French Polynesia (France) 270,000
 Solomon Islands 561,000
 Fiji 862,000
 New Zealand 4,462,000
 Papua New Guinea 7,461,000
 Australia 23,105,000

(Source: Wikipedia)

The total population is just over 38 million. Australia is obviously the dominant country, with PNG as the dominant developing country in population terms.

Some small islands already have free movement to other developed countries: Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands citizens all have automatic dual citizenship with New Zealand. The people of New Caledonia and French Polynesia are French citizens.

Accidents of history and the politics of decolonisation have left most countries without migration access to a larger, more developed country. For example, the citizens of Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau are kind of stuck.

Obviously there are countries in the Pacific with much larger populations. Fiji is one. The Solomon’s and PNG in particular have large populations combined with a high fertility rate. For PNG in particular, it is unlike citizens would be granted free movement in Australia given the potential massive impact this could cause in the short-term as people sought greater living standards.

When you start breaking these populations numbers down, they appear more manageable. If we exclude the three countries with the largest populations, the remaining nine countries without automatic migration opportunities in the Pacific totals less than a million people: 864,000. This is still a large number. It is about equal to the total amount of refugees Australia has settled over the past seventy years. If we take the three smallest countries, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau with 42,000 people, this is equal to about two-thirds of Australia’s family migration program last year and less than a quarter of the total migration program for 2012-13.

There are a few important caveats in relation to the provision of dual-citizenship and opportunity for movement for Pacific citizens in the future.

The first is that clearly the entire population will not move. Even large-scale change due to climate over a period of decades will likely see many, many people choose to remain. Humans are stubborn and adaption will occur, the thought of giving up tradition, culture and homeland too much to bear. Existing examples of dual-citizenship show that a significant proportion of the population choose to continue to live in their home countries. Most people love their home and wouldn’t leave under nearly any circumstances.

The second is that the rest of the world cares not for the Pacific islands. This can be seen by aid and trade flows. While some engagement is sought to win political votes, such as within the U.N., Australia and New Zealand are the dominant developed countries who will take responsibility by default. By acting sooner, rather than leaving events to dictate the future, Australia can shape a policy response over the long-term that is legitimate and represents the best possibility of success.

This is a complicated policy issue. What is a country, if not for the land in which a population inhabits? Will communities and nationality remain outside of borders? How do populations integrate? What does displacement mean for tradition and culture? These are questions which must be considered over the next decades in relation to the Pacific.

I’m not advocating free migration for small island countries starting in 2015. But this is an issue Australia should consider carefully, in conjunction with the citizens of Pacific island countries. It doesn’t have to be solved by a particular date in the next decade but someone, somewhere, needs to consider the impacts and consequences for both Australia and the Pacific islands.

(Edit: I should add, the Pacific is hardly a homogenous area. Pacific politics is supremely complex. This post is meant specifically as a broad topic introduction, as opposed to a policy solution.)

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