Realist Reasoning for Climate Migrant Legitimacy

Original article by Kayly Ober

In 2006, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao pledged $275 million in loans to Pacific nations – a decision, he said, that was “without any strings attached.” But China’s interest in the region extends to far more than being friendly with other developing countries. China knows that Pacific islands are increasingly important players on the international stage. In particular, four key characteristics make them attractive to growing global powers, like China, jockeying for influence: “geostrategic importance; natural resources; critical trade routes; and disproportionate influence in international fora,” explains Cleo Paskal in her new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map. She makes the intriguing case that concerns over finding islanders a new home in the face of climate change should come from realist self-interests: namely, security and economics.

From a geostrategic standpoint, it’s obvious that the area has vast security implications. While China builds up naval bases and communication – namely, satellite – capacities on Pacific islands, traditional powers like the U.S. shy away. China now has a backyard of friendly island stepping-stones in which to reach Southeast and Central Asia and even possibly a lax U.S. west coast. As Robert Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, puts it: “The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century.” Therefore, international support and recognition would keep Pacific islands from falling too deeply into the fold of Chinese influence.

Paskal argues that “control over the Pacific also means control over trade routes,” as well as access to the potential treasure trove of minerals in underwater seabeds — where cadmium and titanium have already been found. Waters around Pacific islands are also known as fishing hotspots, which could become particularly advantageous as the Atlantic’s fish stocks continue to plummet and acidifying oceans threaten global supplies.

What does all this mean? In sum, Pacific islands should use their strategic location and natural resources as bargaining chips in the fight towards recognition and relocation. They could offer the afore-mentioned benefits to those countries that are willing to take in their climate-induced migrants. Thus, climate-induced migrants become value-generating citizens and not burden-inducing immigrants.

An Exercise in What-Ifs

Cleo Paskal asks: “If Tuvalu and other states physically disappear, do they cease to exist as a legal country? Do they lose their seat at the UN? Does their territory become international waters? Or do vast swaths of ocean end up being administered by a population that doesn’t live there? If so, do their descendents have a right to return if, eventually, the islands reappear?” Valid questions when determining a legitimate and sustainable legal framework towards recognizing climate-induced migrants.

She argues that retaining some sort of sovereignty would be essential, as it would give climate-induced migrants “badly needed revenue through access to resource rights (fishing, undersea mining, offshore oil and gas, etc), a voice in international fora, and possibly the right to return if the seas eventually recede.”

She offers solutions in retaining sovereignty under the umbrella of Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States, which says that in order for a

physical location to be deemed a state it must have a government; defined territory, a permanent population; and a capacity to enter into relations with other states.

In regards to building government for a now non-existent country, Paskal believes that a system could be developed to manage the resources of the sunken country for the benefit of its citizens in exile. They could “run the country like a company, with each citizen holding a voting share and distributing annual dividends on the proceeds from the lease of fishing and other rights.” Some examples of territories already adhering to a similar system are the North American First Nations and the Tibetan government in exile – which does a particularly good job of creating a global network with representatives from Tibetan communities in exile and also has a taxation system in place.

In order to keep a defined territory and a permanent population, Pacific nations could theoretically “tether a ship to…old islands (or dump enough sea breaks to form a new island on top of the old island), keep a few people resident there to maintain

a permanent population, and then administer the territory through a government in exile in another country.” Actions get a little murkier when we take into account that sea law dictates that artificial islands only get a 1,640-foot safety zone, and not the bountiful 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone “real” coastlines get, thus limiting access to resources.

But, says Paskal, “at least the artificial island option might preserve the necessary territory and permanent population to claim sovereign status – sovereignty itself could be a commodity, by becoming tax havens or ship registries, and selling passports, stamps, or even domain name suffixes.”

Putting Theory into Play: Maldives and India

Paskal uses the example of the Maldives and India to illustrate her point.

“The Maldives, a group of low-lying coral atolls in the Indian Ocean off the southwest coast of India with a population of around 330,000, could enter into an arrangement with India before inundation. Indian could agree to take in the environmental refugees; settle them, at least initially, and provide them with appropriate Dhivehi-language schools; grant settlers some sort of Indo-Maldivian citizenship; give the Indo-Maldivians the exclusive or major share in the exploitation of the resources in the ocean area that used to be their home; and possibly even allow them a right to return if the island re-emerge.

In exchange, India would get a strategically useful, vastly increased maritime zone that it agrees to protect in international fora against challenges.”

Realist leanings would suggest that this would be the best course of action for the state and for climate-induced migrants.

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