Taukiei Kitara was born on the island of Nui in Tuvalu, as were his parents and their parents. Nui is his fenua, his island and people. And while he’s lived in Australia for more than 10 years now, Tuvalu will always be more than home — it’s his identity.
I will always be a proud Tuvaluan, no matter where I live. I am not a climate migrant.
Like many Tuvaluans in Australia and New Zealand, I chose to move abroad. I was not forced out of my country by climate change. In my case, it was because I married an Australian, and we wanted our children to be educated in Australia.
But for many people in Tuvalu, there is a strong wish to stay on the islands — and I know that no Tuvaluan wants to be called a climate migrant.
Already, in New Zealand, some young Tuvaluans are being stigmatised by others who negatively label them as “climate refugees”. Every Tuvaluan knows how dire climate change might be for Tuvalu, but the desire to protect the land and continue fighting for global emissions reductions, is very strong among all of us — whether we’re in Tuvalu or among the diaspora.
But we’re also pragmatic and know that having a plan for the worst-case scenario is important. Maybe this will involve migration abroad if empty land can’t be found for us to continue living as an independent sovereign nation, practising our culture, and exercising our right to self-determination.
The new Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union offers 280 Tuvaluans the option to move to Australia each year. This new development is something to be cautiously welcomed because Tuvaluans need opportunities to study and work abroad. Our small economy has always depended on some of us travelling outside Tuvalu for education and employment.
However, the Falepili Union falls a long way short of solving Tuvalu’s climate change challenges and raises concerns for other reasons as well.
One of my biggest issues with the Falepili Union is that Tuvaluan communities were not consulted about it, either in Tuvalu or in Australia. I worry that the small Tuvaluan community in Australia will be neither acknowledged nor supported in their efforts to provide care, as needed, to new arrivals from Tuvalu. This is likely to range from sharing housing and food to helping secure work. This is how fale pili works in Tuvaluan diaspora communities: we look after our neighbours as if they are family when needed, without expecting anything back.
This happened during the Covid-19 pandemic in Brisbane, when some Tuvalu community members set up a food bank to support those who were in need. The food bank was available to anyone in the local area.
The Tuvaluan community in Australia also works together to support those Tuvaluans who come to Australia for work contracts under the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) scheme. When needed, particularly when the workers experience unsafe or discriminatory work environments, we provide funds, accommodation, emotional support, advice, and whatever else is needed to ensure the workers can return home or find another position in Australia.
Despite our willingness to support Tuvaluans when needed, I worry about whether the Tuvaluan community in Australia can realistically provide the required assistance to up to 280 people a year, especially given Australia’s ongoing housing affordability crisis.
Unlike in New Zealand, where the Tuvaluan community numbers several thousand, the Tuvaluan community in Australia is much smaller, currently numbering only a few hundred people. What would be great is support from the broader Australia community for Tuvaluans wishing to move to Australia under the Falepili Union.
I hope that people in Australia don’t see us as climate refugees. This isn’t who we are. We are a proud people with a unique cultural identity, and we want to maintain this identity. We don’t need pity, but we welcome partnerships.
A good example comes from my own first experience in Australia, when I travelled to Townsville for Year 11 and 12 at the Cathedral School. Along with a group of other Tuvaluan boarders, we were warmly welcomed into the school community, and experienced an excellent Australian education and a wonderful introduction to Australian life. I have very fond memories of excursions to many places in Australia organised by the school, making friends with people from different parts of Queensland, participating in sports and musicals, and many other school activities.
Many of my fellow Tuvaluans who attended the Cathedral School have gone on to highly successful careers, with some in very high positions in Tuvalu in medicine, law, and education. This is the kind of partnership that new migrants from Tuvalu can really benefit from, if and when migration commences under the Falepili Union.
Perhaps the biggest concern about the Falepili Union is that it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of emissions reductions. Along with other Tuvaluan climate activists, I wonder why Australia couldn’t make a real commitment to addressing the root cause of climate change. This would’ve been a really important step in protecting our islands and saving not only our home but the whole world. This is what Tuvalu has been fighting for in the international climate change negotiations since the beginning.
A long time ago, I signed up to represent Tuvalu’s civil society at the international climate change negotiations. At the time, I was working at the Tuvalu Association of Non-Government Organisations (TANGO), and I wanted the voice of the communities I worked with to be heard.
I travelled to China, Germany, and Denmark to attend COPs where I met activists from all over the world. I learned about the international Climate Action Network and helped to set up the Tuvalu Climate Action Network. I worked with Tuvaluan government representatives to try and get the international community to listen.
We’ve always wanted serious global reductions in fossil fuel use. This was back in the days of the Copenhagen COP in 2009. A new generation of Tuvaluans are still going to the COPs and still asking the same thing.
These days, I’m supporting Tuvalu’s battle against climate change as a researcher. I listen to Tuvaluan people’s stories and analyse them in our own culture, from an Indigenous perspective. During the pandemic, I organised an online forum that brought together leaders and thinkers from different Pacific atoll countries for a diaspora-led dialogue on climate change. When will the international community finally listen?
One of the main issues that we discussed is how our sovereignty can be protected, not eroded, in a changing climate. Leaders of island states, such as Tuvalu, are working on how to ensure permanent statehood and sovereignty in a changing climate.
Indeed, to recognise the threat of climate change, Tuvalu has recently changed its constitution to declare Tuvalu’s maritime zones and statehood permanent, regardless of any effects climate change may have on the land territory.
So, in this context, when it seems our sovereignty is being prioritised, it’s concerning that the Falepili Union Treaty contains considerable rhetoric around respecting sovereignty, but quite clearly erodes Tuvalu’s sovereignty on issues of national security. From now on, Tuvalu must “mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters”.
This treaty shouldn’t be called the Falepili Union Treaty because this treaty doesn’t follow the fundamental principle of falepili, which is about giving and not expecting anything back. You can always ask for a favour if in need, but Australia shouldn’t require anything back from Tuvalu for the treaty to stand.
Why must Tuvalu exchange some of its sovereign powers over its own security for a migration pathway? This is not climate justice.
Taukiei Kitara is a climate activist and researcher who was born in Tuvalu and now lives in Queensland, Australia. He is an adjunct research fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Australia, and a former president of the Tuvalu community in Brisbane.
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