Improving Solutions for the Asian-Pacific ‘Sinking Islands’ Paradigm

by Imaan Budhram
3012 words



Legal Challenges of the ‘Sinking Islands’ Paradigm

Legal Solutions for Kiribati

Clash Between Western and Asian-Pacific Discourse



           Over the past few decades, the topic of rising sea levels associated with climate change has become increasingly relevant as it will impact well over seventy states (Aurescu et al., 2018). States that will particularly be affected by this issue are the Asian-Pacific Islands (Farbotko, 2010). The Asian-Pacific community consists of twenty-five states and its territory extends beyond 25,000 islands located in the western and central Pacific Ocean (Costa & Sharp, 2011). Within the Asian-Pacific territory, studies have found that islands in Micronesia and the Solomon Islands have been submerged by the ocean (Albert et al., 2016; Nunn et al., 2017). In response, many Asian-Pacific states have been forced to engage in relocation of Pacific-Islanders (Tabe, 2019).

            Nearby states such as Australia and New Zealand have also proposed solutions for the Pacific Islanders, but not all have been equally successful (Dempster & Ober, 2020; Warbrooke, 2014). As a proposed solution, in 2017 New Zealand issued an ‘experimental humanitarian visa’ category for displaced Asian-Pacific Islanders (Dempster & Ober, 2020). Every year 100 people would be able to enter New Zealand. However, the proposed solution was dropped within six months, because it was not well-received by the Pacific Islanders since they perceive migrating as a measure of last resort. Instead, the Islanders urged states to contribute more heavily to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and provide support in adaptation efforts. This example illustrates that the solutions proposed by other states neglect the attachment of the Asian-Pacific Islanders to their land and identity (Warbrooke, 2014). In this sense it can be argued that the way in which the ‘sinking island’ paradigm is narrated does not properly reflect the perspectives of all parties involved and has negative repercussions for an effective approach to the issue. For the sake of this paper the term ‘sinking island’ paradigm is defined as the cessation of the existence of a State without it being replaced by another entity (Sparks, 2018).

            Relevant to note is that this issue includes legal considerations. For a country to be considered a state, it must have a defined territory1. Hence, one important question for legal scholars is whether the legal status of statehood will still apply to the Pacific Island states if they lose their territory to the ocean (Johnstone, 2019). Another issue relates to a term that has been used more frequently since the 1970s to describe victims of environmental crises, namely the term ‘climate refugee’ (Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012). This term is problematic within international law, because as became evident in the Teitiota Case2, it has no legal basis. However, the argument has also been made that the framing of this term has negative implications and the term has even been rejected by the people who it would supposedly apply to (Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012). For instance, Bettini et al. (2017) points to the fact that this term assumes the sole cause of the migration being climate change, creating ‘‘an environmentally deterministic understanding of human migration’’ (p. 352). In addition, she argues that this term focuses on the opportunity to move, even though the sole focus should lie on the prevention of displacement.

1 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (entered into force 26 December 1934) 165 LNTS 19, Art. 1. [Hereafter Montevideo Convention]. 2  AF (Kiribati) [2013] NZIPT 800413, New Zealand: Immigration and Protection Tribunal, 25 June 2013, para. 90 and 91.
            Hence, this paper intends to research both the legal and sociological aspects of the ‘sinking islands’ paradigm and it will also underline which components are crucial for a solution to be effective. Thus, this paper aims to answer the following question: ‘What legal and sociological aspects need to be taken into consideration when suggesting solutions for the ‘sinking islands’ paradigm of the Asian-Pacific Islanders?