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Tuvalu: Climate asylum for the vulnerable island nation

Laura Puttkamer

Australia will grant asylum to 280 Tuvaluans a year. Image: Lily-Anne Homasi/DFAT, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Oceanian Island nation Tuvalu is likely to disappear in the near future due to rising sea level. However, its citizens now have the option of moving to Australia with a special visa. More about the residency programme here.

Many Pacific Island nations are highly vulnerable to climate change. Tuvalu, an independent island nation within the British Commonwealth consists of nine islands. The small, thinly populated atolls and reef islands in the South Pacific are home to 11,200 people. If climate change is left unchecked, the nation’s capital Funafuti could be flooded by 2050. Similar to Vanuatu, Tuvalu might be completely submerged by water by the end of the century.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has now announced an immigration plan with a special visa category for those affected by rising sea levels in Tuvalu, offering residency to citizens displaced by climate change. The immigration plan is part of a new treaty that also creates close security ties between Australia and Tuvalu. Up to 280 people will have access to permanent residency in Australia each year. At the same time, Albanese also promised to help the citizens of Tuvalu to “stay in their homes with safety and dignity.”

Tuvalu might be completely submerged by water by the end of the century. Image: Pixabay

Race with China for diplomatic relations

At a time when Australia is under pressure to take stronger action against its fossil fuel sector, this treaty recognises the urgency of climate change and the vulnerability of countries such as Tuvalu. In the treaty, announced on November 10, 2023, the Australian government also states that it will act on requests to respond to major natural disasters, pandemics, or military aggression against Tuvalu. In return, the small island national will be required to agree with Australia when striking deals with any other countries on security or defence-related matters.

Australia appears to be worried about Tuvalu’s defence, policing, border protection, cybersecurity, and critical infrastructure such as ports, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure. All of these are of interest to China. Under the new treaty, Australia’s military could be granted access to Tuvalu if necessary and requested. This is a strategic win for the Australian government in the race with China to pursue closer ties with Pacific Island countries. Tuvalu is one of very few nations in the Pacific to have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Recently, Solomon Islands switched allegiance to China, which was a shock for Australia.

Pacific Island states are particulary threatened by climate change, but they also offer important geopolitical ties. Image: Pixabay

“Migration with dignity”

Prime Minister Albanese announced the plans after talks with fellow Pacific leaders at a regional summit in Cook Islands. The climate crisis was one of the biggest issues on the agenda. The new partnership will carry the name “Falepili Union”, a Tuvaluan word describing good neighbourly relations, care, and mutual respect. Tuvalu wants to safeguard the future of its people, identity, and culture.

Australia’s government will assist with climate adaptation measures while guaranteeing security and ways of preserving the Tuvaluan culture. Adaptation measures include the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, which aims to reclaim land in the capital Funafuti.

According to the Guardian, not all Tuvalu residents will move to Australia. There is no expectation of “wholesale migration” – rather, “migration with dignity” for those who choose it will be offered. The Pacifi island nation also wants to avoid brain drain.

Read more about climate migration here.

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