Mobility, Climate Change and Development in Pacific Small Island Developing States

By Prof. Graeme Hugo* and Prof. Richard Bedford**

In the increasing global discourse on the complex nexus between migration, climate change and development, Pacific Island countries occupy a distinct and important position.  This derives from five characteristics of the region:

  • Of all world regions the Pacific has the highest per capita level of international mobility among its resident populations, especially those in Polynesia and Micronesia.
  • The regional economy of the Pacific is more dependent on remittances than any global region with remittances being a major element in the income of several countries.
  • Of all world regions it will experience the most rapid growth of population in the high mobility groups aged 15-34 years over the next two decades and there is limited capacity to absorb them in the workforces of national economies.
  • The Pacific has become a focus of the global debate on climate change induced migration because of the vulnerability of low atoll island groups like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu to inundation if sea levels rise.
  • The relatively small populations of most Pacific nations mean that migration has the potential to have a greater impact on their demography, economy and social structure and influence the political stability of the region

Figure 1 indicates that all of the 22 Pacific Island countries are small island states.  While Papua New Guinea’s population is 7,321,000, the others vary between 1,000 (Niue) and 881,000 (Fiji).

There are three distinct geographical regions which not only differ culturally but have different resource endowments and levels of dependency on migration (Figure 1).  Melanesia has 87 percent of the Pacific population and 97 percent of the land area.  It has high fertility and is experiencing rapid population growth (2.2 percent per annum) but has, with the exception of Fiji, low levels of outmigration.  Micronesia is less well endowed with resources and has 5.4 percent of the region’s population and a growth rate of 0.6 percent per annum.  It has some emigration, especially to the United States.  Polynesia has 7.6 percent of the population with a growth rate of 0.8 percent per annum and significant outmigration.

There is also differentiation between the PICs in their access to OECD countries’ labour markets for migration.  This largely is a result of historical colonial linkages with France (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna), USA (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, FSM, Palau) and New Zealand (Tokelau, Cook Islands, Niue).  It is no accident that these nations rank more highly on a range of human development and wellbeing indicators than other PICs.  However, only 10 percent of PIC people live in these nations.  Migration opportunities in the other nations are limited.  Seasonal Agricultural Worker Programs have been introduced for New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Australia but most migration opportunities available are limited to skilled migrants and levels of education in the region are low.

In the global discussion on climate change, the Pacific region has been central.  Several countries are identified as being among the most vulnerable places in the world.  This is especially critical with rising sea levels: atolls and small island countries which will be more exposed to storms, flooding of low-lying areas, and reductions in the quality and quantity of fresh groundwater.  Moreover, increased incidence of droughts and greater tropical cyclone devastation are also significant.  A major threat to atoll territories is the saltwater pollution of the freshwater lenses crucial for sustaining residents’ livelihoods.  This includes the countries of Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu and smaller scattered atolls and islands.  These islands house only two per cent of the PIC population and two per cent of the land area but they have attracted considerable attention.  Moreover, Kiribati and Tuvalu are not only among the nations with migration access.

Migration brought on by climate-related environmental change is not a new phenomenon in the Pacific.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when most of Pacific countries were still colonies, entire communities were resettled in other countries of the region.  Some resettlement would seem to be necessary, especially from Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands.  However, this will require a mix of strategies that allow both for increasing numbers of individuals and families to move voluntarily to seek livelihoods in other countries as their options at home become more constrained, as well as for planned resettlement of entire communities as those larger groups seek to preserve their social and cultural identifies in new homes.

Mechanisms will need to be developed for some international resettlement.  But there is a danger that this focus on resettlement is deflecting attention away from other adaptation strategies which will allow some people to remain in their homes if they wish.  The key is to develop sustainable solutions so people can remain as long as possible, and to move families and communities gradually.  Moreover for those who wish to remain, every effort must be made to make this possible.


*Graeme Hugo is ARC Australian Professorial Fellow, Professor of Geography, and Director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide
**Richard Bedford is Professor of Population Geography, National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis at the University of Waikato