Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands, is leading the world in developing an effective response to migration caused by climate change and rising sea levels.
The South Pacific island state is investing $50,000 in developing a legal framework to help climate refugees relocate, according to its Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. While the U.S. and Europe seek to curb inflows of migrants and refugees, Fiji has offered to take in people from the nearby islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu, which are set to disappear because of rising sea levels.
“An island like Fiji is already living with the reality,” said Mohamed Adow, climate change lead at Christian Aid. “It’s questioning the solidarity and compassion of the rich world who’ve likely caused the problem.”
As part of its preparation for higher sea levels, Fiji has started relocating three villages to higher ground and plans to re-settle 43 more. Apart from homes, authorities are also moving graves as settlements are moved inland.
“Of course there are people who are uncomfortable about leaving their traditional, ancestral areas,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.
Compared with other low-lying atolls, Fiji has the advantage of having higher ground, giving it the possibility of accepting migrants from other islands. “We were the first to openly say we will give them residency or refuge in Fiji should rising sea levels make it inevitable,” he added.
Worldwide, sea levels have risen 26 centimetres (10 inches) since the late 19th century, driven up by melting ice and a natural expansion of water in the oceans as they warm, UN data show. Seas could rise by up to a metre by 2100. The rise aggravates the impact of storm surges such as Cyclone Winston in 2016 that killed 44 people in Fiji and caused $1.4 billion in damage, a third of Fiji’s Gross Domestic Product. It also washes more salt water onto cropland. The Pacific state of Kiribati bought 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) of forest land on Fiji in 2014. It might help grow crops in future, or provide a refuge if seas rise.