Migration and Resettlement a Thorny Issue for Nations Whose Future is Threatened by Rising Seas

Columbia Law School Conference on Legal Options for Island Nations Left Vulnerable by Climate Change Finds No Easy Answers, Resistance to Moving

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New York, May 25, 2011—If rising seas caused by climate change swallow up a low-lying island nation, the question of where its citizens would go next is one with no easy answers.
That consensus quickly emerged Tuesday at a Columbia Law School conference devoted to the legal options and implications for these island nations, many in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. They must grapple with inexorably rising sea levels due, in large part, to melting polar ice caps caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
The three-day conference, the first academic meeting to study these issues in-depth, is hosted by the Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. One of the thorniest issues it and other island nations face is resettlement and migration, an inevitable result if they cannot keep in check the oceans that surround and sustain them.
“The Marshall Islands has no intention of becoming like the Aztecs or Mayans, a lost civilization. It’s a vibrant civilization today and wants to stay that way,” said Michael Gerrard, the center’s director.
However, formidable that task, what may be more daunting is how a population disperses if the seas keep rising and a nation physically ceases to exist. “In the context of environmental displacement, (resettlement) has received scant attention,” said Brad Blitz, a professor at Kingston University in London.
How nations handle refugees can offer some guidance, but Blitz noted refugee status is intended to be temporary until the danger that caused someone to flee has passed. He suggested international law could also view migration as a human rights issue, as climate change affects civil, cultural, and political rights.
Along those lines, Robin Bronen of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project said the wrenching decisions that accompany forced migration can be mitigated, in part, when residents are the ones making those choices rather than governments. Bronen has worked with the western Alaskan community of Newtok, where erosion caused by melting permafrost has turned the village into an island that has sunk below sea level.
Newtok engineered a land swap with the federal government, and is now slated to move nine miles south. “The community voted to relocate, so nobody is making the decision for the community,” Bronen said. “They understood they were threatened. They believed there was no technological fix that was going to keep them safe.”

But being able to move and wanting to move are often mutually exclusive. Marshall Islanders, for example, can freely emigrate to the U.S. under a compact of free association created in 1986, when the Marshall Islands became independent from the U.S. However, the country’s foreign minister, John Silk, said most residents want to stay put, and are determined to ensure the Pacific Ocean does not envelop the narrow atolls they live on.
“Land in the Marshall Islands is very precious. It’s not a commodity for sale,” Silk said in an interview. “You inherit it through your parents. You are a trustee. You’re making sure that the next generation will be able to enjoy the same privileges you had when you lived on the property and take care of it. So, if we fail in our trustee obligation, you fail your children and grandchildren.”
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