It is likely that an increased number of migrants will arrive in Australia during the next decade as a result of the effects of environmental change in Pacific Island countries. A relatively modest sea-level rise may pose a threat to the very existence of Tuvalu and Kiribati.
Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu. Much of the population in these Pacific Island countries is youthful, and young adults tend to be the most mobile people. And migrants leaving their homes as a result of environmental change are likely to follow friends and family abroad, many of whom are already settled in Australia.
It is clearly in Australia’s national interest to manage future migration, including environmental migration. The scale of any environmental migration to Australia can be reduced by supporting adaptation to environmental change in the affected countries.
But, however effective these adaptation measures prove, migration to Australia from the Pacific Island countries as a result of environmental change is still likely to occur. Australia needs to plan for this in order to maximise the benefits, but also minimise the costs, including any increase in irregular migration.
What is required is a national policy framework on environmental migration with three main components: continuing support for multilateral initiatives on environmental migration; capacity-building in origin and transit countries; and national legislation for environmental migrants arriving in Australia that leverages existing labour migration programs and targets a limited number of countries.
Developing a national policy framework on environmental migration is not an exercise in speculation – it is managing a future challenge, and it is in Australia’s national interest to begin that process now.
Lowy Institute Analyses are short papers analysing recent international trends and events and their policy implications. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the author’s own and not those of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.