Sinking States

Climate Change and the Next Refugee Crisis

A boat floats in the lagoon near Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati May 25, 2013. David Gray / Reuters

A new kind of refugee crisis is on the horizon. For this one, there will be no tyrants to blame and the migrants won’t be escaping war. They will be fleeing nature—specifically the ocean—and they will have no home to return to. The highest point in the Pacific state of Tuvalu is just over 15 feet above sea level. During tidal surges, all of Tuvalu becomes temporarily submerged. The highest point in the Maldives, a country situated on coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, is less than eight feet above sea level. The tide on the islands creeps higher by the day. Scientists expect Tuvalu to disappear in the next 50 years, the Maldives in the next 30. Once they become uninhabitable, neighboring islands will follow, affecting up to 9.2 million people throughout the Pacific Ocean’s 22 island states and 345,000 in the Maldives. Although the slow advance of the waves may not attract as much media attention as the metaphoric flood of refugees hitting European shores, the consequences of the unprecedented eradication of a state’s entire territory will be just as significant.

Throughout the Pacific, evacuation—more innocuously referred to as “population transfer” in most cases—is already taking place. New Zealand has agreed to grant entry and work permits to an annual quota of 75 citizens from Tuvalu; but Australia has reportedly declined to do the same and has not accepted climate refugees. Around 57 percent of Samoans and 46 percent of Tongans already live outside their home countries, mostly in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the United States has given the citizens of the Marshall Islands the right to live and work visa-free on its shores, and Fiji has promised to accept climate refugees from Kiribati if the need arises.

Although populations can be hosted abroad in the case of mass migration, states themselves cannot. Entire populations could become stateless if their home states sink. Even those granted new citizenship would feel the loss of their homes and livelihoods. Once displaced, Tuvaluan fishermen or

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