Labor Push To Rescue Climate Refugees

Jewel Topsfield, The Age (Melbourne), March 14, 2007

LABOR will be pushed to take an international role in accepting climate refugees from Pacific nations threatened with submersion under rising seas at next month’s ALP conference. The splinter group Labor for Refugees will lobby for a future Labor government to develop an Australian legal framework to process environmental refugees as islands such as Tuvalu and Kiribati face becoming uninhabitable within decades, due to climate change.

The group also wants the party to agree to work with Pacific countries to fairly accept environmental refugees and lead debate within the United Nations to update conventions to recognise environmental refugees.

Despite influential former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern last year warning that millions of people in the Asia Pacific region could be displaced by global warming, the Howard Government has refused to acknowledge the prospect of climate refugees. A Labor policy paper released last year advocated the establishment of an international coalition, led by Australia, to accept climate change refugees from Pacific countries, but the party will be pushed to go much further when the politically sensitive issue is raised at next month’s conference.

“Quite frankly, the existing Government has failed to properly plan for the inevitable consequence of climate change and it’s about time we have a Labor government that will,” Labor for Refugees spokesman Daniel Mookhey told The Age. Mr Mookhey said there was no legal framework for processing climate refugees under Australian or international law because the 1951 international refugee convention defined a refugee as a person who had a well-founded fear of persecution.

“What we are saying is that there is a need for protection, which arises as a consequence of climate change,” he said.

Mr Mookhey said Australia was the largest country in the South Pacific and should take the world lead in developing a legal framework defining who classified as a climate refugee, which could then be adopted by other countries. However, The Age believes the push is unlikely to be successful because of fears that Australia could be swamped by climate refugees if it developed a unilateral policy without worldwide backing.

Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke said it was essential that an international coalition was established as climate refugees would be a problem that affected the world. “A formal legal framework is something we would only look at after an international coalition has been built,” he said.

However, he said Australia could already assist its Pacific neighbours through the use of a special humanitarian visa. “If your home is underwater it doesn’t give you a well-founded fear of persecution but it certainly gives you a good reason to move,” he said.

While New Zealand began accepting 75 Tuvaluans a year in 2001, the Australian Immigration Department last month admitted during Senate hearings that it had done no analysis on the impact of climate change on people movements.

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