It is in Australia’s national interest to respond to rising displacement in the Pacific with a suite of preventative policies, according to a new policy brief from UNSW’s Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Released on Thursday, the paper noted the impacts of disasters currently displace many more people within their countries each year than conflict does.
The Asia-Pacific alone saw more than 80% of all new disaster displacement between 2008 and 2018. That internal and cross-border displacement would likely increase as disasters intensify and become more frequent, the report warned.
To tackle this, the policy brief recommended the Australian government introduce immediate policy changes to help reduce the scale and impact of displacement in the Pacific region.
“Preventative measures, such as mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction, along with proactive measures, such as enhanced mobility, could significantly reduce the risk of future displacement, and thereby also reduce economic, social and human costs and suffering,” it said.
The report authors — Kaldor Centre director Jane McAdam and the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program director Jonathan Pryke — have argued that well-informed, complementary policies across a range of different sectors could help tackle climate change to prevent displacement.
“While the most important action on climate change must happen domestically, by curbing its greenhouse gas emissions as part of a concerted global effort, the Australian government can take more proactive policy measures to reduce some of the displacement-related impacts of disasters in the Pacific Islands region,” the report said.
They noted that responding to displacement was in Australia’s national interest, and not simply a humanitarian issue.
“The stability and prosperity of Pacific Island countries directly impact Australia, and Australia benefits from the economic and social contributions Pacific Islanders make as temporary and permanent migrants,” the paper said.
“Migration employment programs will be undermined by displacement-driven instability, directly affecting those Australian employers who have become dependent on reliable and effective workers from the Pacific.”
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The authors have called on the federal government to develop “smarter” temporary, seasonal and long-term migration programs to “enhance the resilience of those who move, as well as those who stay behind”. They said some existing programs already fill labour gaps for Australian businesses while providing for Pacific workers and their families.
“This is happening now with the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), and we hope and expect these schemes will grow,” Pryke said.
“But they can also be improved — the PLS needs to offer a pathway to permanent residency if it’s really going to help Islanders at risk from the impacts of global warming.”
The federal government should also avoid sending people back to countries where the impacts of disasters or climate change put their lives at risk, the report recommended.
“Countries in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, should develop bilateral and/or regional plans to address climate change-related displacement and mobility, which could include a regional, rights-based framework,” it said.
Other recommendations included implementing targeted policy interventions on planned relocation to “reduce the risk and extent of future displacement linked to the impacts of disasters and climate change in the Pacific”, and following New Zealand’s lead by contributing to Fiji’s Climate Relocation and Displaced Peoples Trust Fund for Communities and Infrastructure.