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The climate refugees of the Carteret Islands

Carterets THE CARTERET ISLANDS in Papua New Guinea are not on most maps of the Earth; they’re just too small to merit inclusion at one square kilometer of total land mass spread among a cluster of coral atolls.

But they just might make it big in the history books — as the former home of the world’s first true climate refugees.

“The Carterets lie in a circular reef infringed by many reefs in a lagoon, very beautiful but going down really fast through shorelines degradation,” reports Ursula Rakova, a local resident.

“Over the last 20 years, [the] Carterets have been experiencing rising sea levels, and our chiefs got together and initiated an organization which could fast-track our relocation.”

Carteret beach The oceans rose roughly two millimeters per year over the course of the 20th century, creeping up the Carteret’s shores.

The islanders may have made a bad situation worse by fishing with dynamite, destroying protective reefs in the quest for food after refugees flooded the islands during Bougainville’s war to secede from PNG in the 1990s.

But sea levels could rise metres more by this century’s end as warmer ocean waters expand and the meltdown of vast ice sheets in Greenland continues. That would be the end of the Carterets — and many other small islands.

The 1,700 or so Carteret islanders may be among the first people to move. That’s because scientists estimate the islands will be drowned by 2015.

A 19th century sea captain dubbed the Carterets “Massacre Islands.” The massacre now is of the traditional foodstuffs of the inhabitants: taro, breadfruit and the like, poisoned by intruding salt water that is also fouling drinking water.

Storm surges — and even waves at high tide — now routinely wash over entire islands in the group.

The PNG government has authorised Carteret residents to move, and at least five families already have permanently relocated to Bougainville as part of what the islanders are calling Tulele Peisa, or “sailing the waves on our own.”

The move is expected to take at least a decade to complete, according to Rakova, who is helping lead the relocation effort.

“The sea that was once a friend to us is basically now destroying the lives of my people,” she said. “When we move it means some parts of our culture will be destroyed, will be left behind because we need to adapt to the new situation.”

Source: Yale Climate Media Forum

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Peter Kranz

J Doherty - There is a history of the forced relocation of island inhabitants by great powers - although not for reasons of climate change but for reasons of military strategy. And it is fraught with legal difficulties.

Check the history of what happened to the population of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Bought by the Poms from Mauritius, then depopulated to make way for a big military base leased to the US.

The inhabitants were forcibly removed by the brits to make way for the yanks.

"Relocation of 1971 [Wikipedia] - All the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, regardless of ancestry or employment status, were involuntarily, and some claim, forcibly, relocated to other islands in the Chagos Archipelago, or to Mauritius or Seychelles by 1971 to satisfy the requirements of a UK/US Exchange of Notes signed in 1966 to depopulate the island when the US constructed a base upon it.

"No current agreement exists on how many of the evacuees met the criteria to be an Ilois, and thus be an indigenous person at the time of their removal, but the UK and Mauritian governments agreed in 1972 that 426 families, numbering 1,151 individuals[20] were due compensation payments as exiled Ilois. The total number of people certified as Ilois by the Mauritian Government's Ilois Trust Fund Board in 1982 was 1,579.
This involuntary relocation decision remains in litigation as of 2010."

So the West can do it roughhandedly when it comes to military priorities, but seems reluctant to consider doing so for reasons of climate change.

See also the Brit and Aussie relocation of Aborigines from the Maralinga area to make way for atomic tests (although they forgot to round up a few hundred who thus suffered terribly from the effects of radioactive fallout) - likewise the US at Bikini and the French at Mururoa.

J Doherty

So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation?

International law currently has no answers to such questions.
United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

“Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases.

Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100.

“The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva.

International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.

t present, however, there appear to be at least two possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution.

A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees.

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