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Sinking out of sight Kamal Amakrane on protecting the displaced millions as sea levels rise

The climate crisis is undeniably here, and its human face will inevitably be the forced displacement of millions of people. As global warming persists, ice caps will melt and low-lying islands will be submerged by rising sea levels.

By the end of the century this will produce a flood of displaced people on a scale that is hard to imagine. Many island states will lose significant amounts of territory to the rising sea level. At least five –Tuvalu, the Maldives, Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands – face complete submersion by . It is estimated that some two million people will be affected by this tragedy.

Tuvalu, a nat i on o f some , people, will become uninhabitable by – if not much earlier – making it the first nation state to disappear due to climate change.

Despite efforts to draw attention to this impending disaster, there has not been much real progress to counter the climate crisis nor has the international community offered formal support. These countries are now scrambling to find ways to save their peoples, cultures and history from disappearing entirely. What does one make of this moral, legal and institutional conundrum?

The current international protection regime, as applied to refugees under the Geneva Convention, cannot be extended to these populations as it was designed to protect those fleeing persecution for specific reasons – race, religion or political ideology. The populations of these small islands, therefore, lack specific legal rights and guarantees granted to standard refugees. Moreover, the Convention on Statelessness defines a stateless person as an individual ‘who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law’.

It is unclear if the physical disappearance of a country’s dry territory would render it non-existent as these Pacific island states could continue to exist legally even after being submerged. As such, their populations might become de facto stateless without any legal recognition.

The Pacific island of Tuvalu could be the first to vanish beneath the waves

Further complicating this is the fact that current protection regimes have been devised around individuals, not communities or nations. How then do we ensure the protection of these ‘peoples’ as a collective – how do we preserve their community’s heritage, social and cultural rights? How do we safeguard the notion of state? And how do we guarantee all of the above on a permanent basis?

This is an unprecedented situation. Given the current unravelling of multilateral cooperation, bilateral legal and political arrangements are the practical way forward. As acquisition of land within another state, by purchase or a treaty of cession, is unrealistic in today’s political environment, the only viable solution is a treaty of friendship and protection.

Under such a treaty, the government of the disappearing island state would be allowed to function from the territory of the receiving state – carry out its limited duties from a reinvented ‘embassy-plus’, while its population would be relocated within their host nation in a manner that ensures social, family and tribal cohesion.

Specific programmes would be needed to economically empower these communities and ensure their integration within their host country.

From this ‘territorial outpost’, the government would continue to execute and guarantee the rights which flow from citizenship. It would also be allowed to enter into economic agreements on aspects related to its exclusive economic zone, the sale of stamps and coin, and the signing of economic contracts, such as, in the case of Tuvalu, l eas i ng i t s . tv i nternet domain.

Such a treaty should also guarantee double citizenship – of both the host and disappearing island state – to these peoples and their descendants.

This has been done before. In the late th century, many Icelanders left Iceland for environmental and social reasons. They entered into agreement with the Canadian government and were given land in which they could form a provisional government and were given both Canadian and Icelandic citizenship. Eventually, the settlement was fully integrated into Canada.

This example shows that there are mechanisms by which these populations can be protected and accommodated. Besides saving a nation facing existential threats and ensuring the preservation of an entire population and its culture and history, the receiving country’s actions could reshape the concept of a ‘nation state’ and the very nature of international relations.

Protecting these populations will be an opportunity to promote global efforts to address the climate emergency, breathing new life into the climate agenda and humanizing climate action. Not only is such an approach manageable and inexpensive, it is a moral imperative to save these populations and a much-needed impetus for our collective compassion. Kamal Amakrane is special adviser for strategic partnerships supporting the United Nations in advancing the SDGs and an adjunct professor at Columbia University working on efforts to address climate-forced migration

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