Disasters don’t just destroy homes, businesses, and livelihoods. They can create significant economic and social disruption, which affects long-term prosperity, stability, and security. Last year, over 33 million people were displaced within their countries by the impacts of disasters and climate change – three times the number that were displaced by conflict. As climate change intensifies the frequency and/or severity of these events, displacement – and its associated economic and social impacts – are likely to increase … unless governments take concerted pre-emptive action now.

The Asia-Pacific region is on the frontline of the climate crisis,  with cyclones, floods, king tides, and even drought displacing large numbers of people each year – close to 10 million in 2019. Pacific Island countries are at particular risk, and even Australia is not immune: bushfires in the summer of 2019–20 saw more people displaced than at any other time in Australian history.

It’s too late to stop climate change-related displacement dead in its tracks. No matter what mitigation or adaptation strategies are put in place now, some displacement is inevitable. However, there is still time to “flatten the curve” – but only if we act now.

In our new policy brief for the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, released today, we provide a roadmap for action by the Australian government to reduce the scale and impact of future displacement, and its associated economic, social and human costs in the Pacific region.

Although geared towards Australian policymakers, the brief offers lessons to other regions as well – and in fact draws on effective practices in other countries. Above all, it shows why we need concrete action now to avoid further widespread displacement. This includes expanding opportunities for migration – as a form of climate change adaption itself.

By enhancing migration opportunities for Pacific Islanders, Australia could concurrently create economic opportunities; provide a release valve for communities facing demographic, environmental, and financial challenges; and reduce people’s exposure to the impacts of disasters and climate change in Pacific countries. This would be a significant contribution to the region as a whole. It would also deepen the strategically vital bonds among what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls our “Pacific family.”

Temporary, seasonal, and long-term migration can provide important risk-management strategies for Pacific peoples. They can help families to diversify their livelihoods and broaden their networks for financial security, while maintaining links at home. They can also alleviate demographic and resources pressures and foster positive development in communities of origin. In doing so, they can enhance the resilience of those who move, as well as those who stay behind.

Australia is a critical partner to Pacific Island States: the largest aid donor, trading partner, investor, source of tourism, and one of the largest recipient countries of Pacific migrants. The stability and prosperity of Pacific Island States also have a direct impact on Australia’s own interests. That is why a concerted Australian response to the risk of displacement in the Pacific is not just a humanitarian imperative, but is also in the national interest.

Why should Australia act?

First, increased displacement – whether internal or cross-border – will make the Pacific region more unstable, contributing to cultural tensions, poverty, and potentially even civil unrest. A core objective of Australia’s interests, and aid investments, in the Pacific is to maintain stability and promote prosperity, and displacement will undermine this. Internal movement is already impacting on overcrowded urban settlements where there are limited resources, poor prospects for employment and little (if any) government support. If cross-border displacement does occur, the primary destination will not be Australia but rather other Pacific nations, in particular, Fiji. Few Pacific Islanders have the means or the desire to move to a country like Australia, which is markedly more expensive, and more “foreign,” than closer Pacific neighbors. Furthermore, whereas Australia requires non-citizens to hold a visa, many Pacific Island States grant mutual privileges such as visa waivers or visa‑on‑arrival for visitors, which partly explains the high degree of mobility between these countries.

Secondly, a number of Pacific Islanders have already sought protection in Australia as refugees or beneficiaries of complementary protection. Although no claim has succeeded so far, this is partly a result of the specific facts and timing of the cases, rather than legal principle. If the underlying conditions in which people are living in parts of the Pacific are not addressed, and lawful pathways for movement are not provided, then we may see more of these cases in the future. The Australian government can either leave it to the tribunals and courts to determine the way forward, or it can choose to devise proactive policies of its own.

Thirdly, Australia benefits from the contributions Pacific Islanders make to the economy as seasonal and temporary workers, as well as through long-term or permanent migration, often via New Zealand. This, in turn, helps to promote economic opportunities in home communities as livelihoods can be diversified and remittances sent home. Seasonal employment programs have the potential to grow to five times their current size by 2040, but they could be undermined by displacement-related instability in sending communities. This would directly affect those employers in Australia who have come to rely on these workers.

Finally, as a good international citizen, Australia should honor the commitments it has made to respect the right to life, dignity and full realization of other human rights, and to assist other countries to do the same.

Indeed, Australia has been closely engaged in the key intergovernmental processes on disaster displacement through the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement (2012–15) and its successor, the Platform on Disaster Displacement (2016–). Thanks in part to their efforts, a number of international instruments now include important language on disasters, climate change and mobility, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the 2015 Paris Outcome on climate change, and the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. There is also a Task Force on Displacement established under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, has pointed out that if only 1 percent of the Pacific’s relatively small population were permitted to work permanently in Australia, this would bring more benefits to the people of the Pacific than Australia’s aid contribution. Given that remoteness from large markets, small market size, and weak governance hamper economic growth in the Pacific, enhanced mobility would provide a great economic boost. Furthermore, it is clear that Australia has a strong interest in seeing a stable, prosperous, and developed Pacific. Pacific communities, meanwhile, would like labor mobility schemes to be strengthened, including by increasing the number of opportunities and investing in their operation, especially to reduce risks linked to poor working conditions and exploitation.

Unlike more reactive responses to displacement, smart migration policies give people choices to take control of their own lives. 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. As Morrison has said: “This is our patch. This is our part of the world. This is where we have special responsibilities.”

There’s already a wealth of good practices and international guidance that Australia – and other countries – could adopt, ranging from special humanitarian visas or temporary stay arrangements in the aftermath of a disasters, to expedited processing of and flexibility with requirements for migration visas, to temporary labor migration schemes and free movement agreements.

What’s needed now is the political will to act.

Image: People are reflected in standing water after rain as they gather on the airport runway on November 25, 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people has been classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme. Some scientists have predicted that Tuvalu could become inundated and uninhabitable in 50 to 100 years or less if sea level rise continues. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images