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QUT Law Review ISSN: (Print) 2205-0507 (Online) 2201-7275

Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 86-101 DOI: 10.5204/qutlr.v15i2.625






The prospect of widespread displacement in the Pacific as a result of climate change is becoming increasingly likely and it is possible that many will eventually need to relocate to other countries. Regional migration strategies not only offer the potential to minimise the harms of relocation, while acknowledging existing relationships of friendship and regional cooperation. This article examines the use of the language of ‘neighbourliness’ in Australia’s regional climate change strategies and argues that, while it expresses friendship, such language can also be employed to avoid the creation of stronger obligations. The article considers the international doctrine of good neighbourliness and concludes that, while international legal obligations may not yet exist, Australia should nonetheless begin planning for regional migration within the Pacific to allow people to migrate with dignity.


The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (‘IPCC’) reiterates predictions that changes to weather patterns and rising sea levels caused by climate change will result in losses of habitable land and will likely lead to the displacement of communities and potentially even entire populations. For low-lying island states in the Pacific the prospect of displacement of whole communities is becoming increasingly real, and a number of states have already begun the process of planning for relocation. Migration has been commonly employed as an adaptation strategy for climate change, as individuals or families choose to emigrate to avoid the negative environmental, social and economic implications of a changing climate.

Where migration is undertaken willingly it can be an effective strategy and can assist those who remain behind, but where it is involuntary it can have significant harmful impacts, including loss of livelihoods, social structures, and cultural identity, and can cause distress and trauma. The prospect that climate change will lead to forced displacement is therefore of serious concern.

While planned migration can be successful, in order to minimise the negative impacts of relocation it is essential that migration strategies are planned in consultation with communities and that the full range of social, cultural and psychological implications are considered. Given that the negative impacts of relocation tend to increase with the distance travelled, it is * BA/LLB (Hons) (University of Queensland), LLM (University of Nottingham), PhD (Monash University).

Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), School of Law. The author wishes to thank the participants at the ‘When People Have to Move’ symposium on climate displacement held in Brisbane on 23 May 2014, whose insightful discussion contributed greatly to the ideas in this paper. Thanks also go to Angela Dwyer, Marcelle Burns, Fiona McDonald and Cassandra Cross for their helpful comments on an earlier draft, and to the two anonymous reviewers for their very constructive feedback.

QUT Law Review Volume 15, Issue 2, 2015 suggested that regional migration strategies can help to minimise harm, as they can be better tailored to the needs of the particular community and can take advantage of existing migration pathways. Regional migration arrangements should be planned in consultation with affected persons, giving them opportunities to participate in decisions which affect them. When properly planned and executed, regional migration can allow persons affected by climate change to relocate with dignity and maintain connections to their communities and cultures while ensuring they have access to economic opportunities and services.

In addition to the tangible benefits of regional migration, such arrangements also incorporate notions of regional solidarity, friendship and ‘neighbourliness’. The concept of neighbourliness in the context of climate change displacement suggests a number of implications. First, by drawing on sentiments of solidarity and goodwill, regional strategies may offer greater prospects of success than attempts to secure global agreements addressing displacement, which have so far received little support. At the same time however, while attitudes of solidarity and goodwill may encourage wealthy states to offer assistance within their regions, the discourse of neighbourliness can also be used by those states to frame such assistance as non-obligatory.

In the context of climate change in the Pacific, Australia has frequently adopted the language of ‘neighbourliness’ in establishing policies for international aid and assistance. 1 It is argued that this language is chosen to evoke notions of goodwill and cooperation without admitting any legal obligations to assist. As a wealthy state and a high per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, Australia arguably has moral obligations to assist persons displaced by climate change in the region, yet the language of neighbourliness employed in policies to date suggests that the assistance provided within the region flows from a sense of goodwill rather than duty. In international law, the concept of ‘good-neighbourliness’ exists to impose duties on states within a shared regional area to cooperate and to avoid conduct which harms each other’s interests.2 The potential application of this concept to regional displacement caused by climate change has yet to be explored, but it is a concept which may contribute to our understanding of the benefits of regional assistance and the possible moral and legal duties which might exist.

This article will analyse the benefits of adopting regional strategies for addressing climate displacement, demonstrating that a well-considered and coordinated regional response may offer the best means of addressing displacement while minimising the harms of relocation. It will examine a number of policies adopted by Australia over the past decade in order to assess the influence of principles of regionalism and ‘neighbourliness’, arguing that Australia’s willingness to extend assistance to its ‘neighbours’ could be harnessed to create stronger strategies for addressing the problem of climate displacement in the Pacific. The article also considers whether the international law principle of good neighbourliness may have application in the context of climate displacement and might impose any obligations on states like Australia to assist within the region. The article concludes that, while legal obligations do not yet exist, there are strong economic, humanitarian and security imperatives which suggest that the time has come for states like Australia to develop regional migration strategies to address climate displacement in the Pacific.

See eg Bob Sercombe and Anthony Albanese, Our Drowning Neighbours: Labor’s Policy Discussion Paper on 1 Climate Change in the Pacific (Australian Labor Party, 2006); Australian Government, Engaging our Pacific Neighbours on Climate Change: Australia’s Approach (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009); Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, ‘Australia Is Committed To Assisting Our Neighbours To Deal With The Impacts Of Climate Change’ (Media release, 7 December 2011).

2 Sub-committee on Good Neighbourliness, Development and Strengthening of Good Neighbourliness Between States, UN GAOR, 6th Comm, 43rd sess, Agenda Item 136, UN Doc A/C.6/43/L.11 (16 November 1988).

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The impacts of climate change in the Pacific region are predicted to be widespread, diverse and, in some circumstances, severe. In many places effects such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels and storm surges are already being experienced, with consequences including coastal erosion, loss of agricultural land and infrastructure, and contamination of fresh water supplies.3 The most recent report of the IPCC confirms that climate change will lead to an increased risk of displacement of individuals and communities.4 In some areas, such as in the Pacific, extreme weather events and rising sea levels are likely to result in loss of habitable land and may cause permanent displacement of populations.5 The IPCC predicts with confidence that long-term environmental changes, sea-level rise, coastal erosion and loss of agricultural productivity will have a significant impact on migration flows, resulting in permanent relocation of communities and exacerbating existing migration trends.6

A Migration as Adaptation

In response to the risks presented by climate change, work is underway in many Pacific island countries to plan and implement adaptation strategies, including building capacity in the scientific analysis of risks and undertaking projects to improve community resilience. As well as other programs to build capacity and resilience in situ, a number of nations are already planning for the eventuality of relocation. However, even before it becomes necessary for communities to relocate, migration can be an effective adaptation strategy to deal with the impacts of climate change.7 As Barnett and O’Neill have explained, mobility of some members of a community can reduce the risks for those who remain and can assist with adaptation. They argue that increasing voluntary labour mobility is a ‘low-cost and low-regret approach that contributes to the adaptive capacity of communities through networks that are used to exchange goods, services and information.’8 Johnson has also argued that migration can be an effective

tool in adaptation:

[w]hen it is planned and supported through public policy, migration can provide an important means of diversifying livelihoods and reducing vulnerability to environmental shocks and stresses.9 Migration or labour mobility can also be an effective adaptation strategy where it involves remittance of money back to families and communities. Labour migration from the South Christopher B Field et al, ‘Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ (Contribution Of 3 Working Group II to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report, 31 March 2013) Summary for Policymakers, 6-8.

Neil Adger et al, ‘Chapter 12: Human Security’ in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability 4 (Contribution of Working Group II to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report), 12.

Ibid 13-14; Stephen Tully, ‘The Contribution of Human Rights as an Additional Perspective on Climate Change 5 Impacts Within the Pacific’ (2007) 5 New Zealand Journal of Public International Law 169, 173; Karen Elizabeth McNamara and Chris Gibson, ‘“We Do Not Want To Leave Our Land”: Pacific Ambassadors At The United Nations Resist The Category Of “Climate Refugees”’ (2009) 40 Geoforum 475, 475.

6 Adger et al, above n 4, 12.

Ibid 14; Jon Barnett and Saffron J O’Neill, ‘Islands, Resettlement and Adaptation’ (2012) 2 Nature Climate 7 Change 8, 9; John R Campbell, ‘Climate-Change Migration in the Pacific’ (2014) 26(1) The Contemporary Pacific 1, 7.

Barnett and O’Neill, above n 7, 10.

8 Craig A Johnson, ‘Governing Climate Displacement: The Ethics and Politics of Human Resettlement’ (2012) 9 12(2) Environmental Politics 308, 310.

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Pacific to Australia and New Zealand goes back to colonial times and there is a longstanding tradition of remitting earnings from overseas work to support family and community.10 Importantly, labour mobility and remittances from overseas work allow people to adapt according to their own needs and values and in their own time.11 Clearly, migration can form part of climate change adaptation strategies even before land becomes uninhabitable and can be incorporated on a more individualised scale while plans are being developed for longerterm, larger-scale solutions.

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