There’s no time like the present to reduce consumption of plastics, and at minimum reuse and recycle. In the Pacific, we are facing questions on what to do with our own rubbish and imports that continue to float onto our shores. Recent reporting about the well-known “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” estimates that there are more than 78,000 tonnes of plastic in an area of about 1.6 square kilometers. The rubbish patch has grown substantially, helped by extreme events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
This year, for better or for worse, certain trends are creating a momentum of impact on the plastic landscape. At the national level, some governments are refusing to take notice. Leaving recycling up to the market and local level to regulate has meant inconsistencies in costs and infrastructure across districts and states and impeded an effective national movement in many countries.
In addition to what is floating in the ocean, plastic and other recycling is piling up on land in Australia, the United Kingdom, Samoa, the European Union, and elsewhere as China’s restriction on imports of waste takes effect. According to the ABC, the ban will impact about 619,000 tonnes of materials worth $523 million in Australia alone.
But, when one recycling bin closes, sometimes, another one opens. This presents an opportunity to transform the industry and societal behaviours, take leadership, and call out harmful practices.
We’ve heard positive news from industry recently, who noticed rubbish piling up in the Pacific. Rather than leaving the Pacific islands with empty shipping containers after unloading exports, China Navigation wants to pick up rubbish and recyclable materials for free. It is still figuring out where and how to process the recyclables. Pacific Recycles in Samoa is the only major recycling operation in the Pacific islands, and is aiming to improve quality of materials so that New Zealand or other countries will accept the rubbish.
Unsurprisingly, Pacific island leaders are acting. Governments of Vanuatu, Palau, Marshall Islands, and American Samoa have signed on to banning single-use plastic bags. Some have also adopted levies on bags or bottles. In New Zealand, a petition to ban plastic bags was accepted at Parliament in February.
In Australia, waste industry and environmental advocates are calling on the government to take action on regulations to encourage a circular economy or ensure purchasing of recycled products in government procurement. The federal government has signaled it is an issue for state and local governments; so for now at the lowest levels, local governments like the Hornsby Shire Council in the Sydney suburbs have it on their agenda to find new solutions for recycling and to consume less plastics.
While China has framed the ban on imports of recycling as a way to improve its environment, it could lead to an increase in new production of the same plastics. China’s demand for some plastics, particularly polyethylene, are forecast to rise to make up for the loss of recycled plastic. Producers, then, should take more responsibility for managing the environmental impact of the full lifecycle of their products. Consumers can also refuse to create demand for certain plastics, recycle, and utilise the local resources available to understand lifestyle habits.
It seems no beach or stream is free from pollution, but there are plenty of groups and individuals working to fix that. For example, the organisation Clean Up Australia has more than 7,000 registered clean up sites, empowering local communities with tools, networking, and knowledge. We know that commercial fishing gear make up a significant portion of ocean rubbish and have their own harmful impact on wildlife; recycling nets and other gear has turned into an effective business for more more than a few startups, converting them into carpets and other consumer products. Bringing government, industry, and community groups together is essential to not only creating projects like those funded by the Australian Packaging Covenant but also to understanding global needs and expanding possibilities.
The likelihood of conferences on climate change to be impacted by severe weather events is on the rise. In February 2018, many participants of the Pacific Climate Change Conference were delayed or prevented from arriving in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. We participated in the conference because we understood the grave dangers that lie ahead to local communities and countries if there is no action to prevent a rise in temperature above 1.5 degree Celsius or a focus on adaptation. And, Cyclone Gita strengthened the resolve of academics, physical scientists, consultants, activists, and project planners to press for change. With the Pacific islands at the forefront of climate change, having a conference and community dedicated to showcasing work in the region helps to identify future needs for the most important transnational issue of our age.
Presentations on the world of climate finance, indigenous voices, and the economy provided contradictions in the way these issues are handled by policymakers and academics. First, there is a confusing ‘spaghetti diagram’ of funding models and mechanisms for attaining climate finance. As I’ve written, those that need it the most often have the least human and financial resources to submit project proposals. One presenter provided an example: a proposal for a $9 million project in one Pacific island country took 6 years and $300,000 to complete. Additionally, some overseas development organisations are using access to climate finance in order to climate-proof their existing aid projects.
With panels and a keynote session on indigenous voices, the conference provided a platform to share knowledge and provide suggestions for non-indigenous researchers and policymakers. There was a major call to enable indigenous communities to protect traditional land-based and maritime cultural practices. Their rights to environmental self-determination in New Zealand and elsewhere have been eroded in the face of recommendations from external consultants.
Moreover, there are multiple levels of governance regulating adaptation projects but they are not all connected; in one example, local tourism operators in Samoa were not away of national and regional climate adaptation programs that were intended to benefit the tourism industry. Rather than claiming expertise and recolonizing indigenous practices, Western academics and policymakers should be more inclusive by inviting indigenous communities to the table to showcase examples of holistic approaches to ecosystem and economic planning.
Criticisms were rife of politicians and businesses who have, in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s words, “discounted the future in place of the present.” Dealing with climate change requires long-term planning and a transformation of lifestyles. Action is hampered by political cycles and people who think we can simply “trade our way out of climate change.” Christopher Wright from the University of Sydney explained how advanced economies have failed to act because neoliberalism both masks capitalism as the problem and exacerbates it by framing business and markets as the solution. Regulatory intervention and promotion of renewables are options, but highly unlikely on a global scale. Rather, he sees divestment and social mobilisation as the most productive paths for society to disrupt the status quo discourse.
Existing international law is also not sufficient to change norms and handle existing crises. Presenters discussed how history has shown that states are not inclined to follow non-binding rules whether or not they relate to fossil fuels. Even when rules are written, such as those around deep sea mining in the Pacific, they are made in the interests of the extractors rather than indigenous and local communities who have rights to their ocean and land.
More questions than answers were posed on the future statehood and rights of those citizens who lose their islands due to climate change. Kiribati and Tuvalu are in line to face these challenges and will rely on goodwill from other nation-states. How will they retain the connection to their culture and sovereignty if their land disappears? New Zealand’s temporary visa scheme is a step forward, but not a permanent solution.
So while problems of political will that stunted progress in climate change work are still present, they are mitigated by airing them out in the open and enabling discussion of alternative solutions.
There is a great and urgent need for action and research on all fronts (top-down and bottom-up, adaptation and mitigation) in the Pacific. The Conference provided hope that there will be more roles, voices, capacity-building, and legal debates for the Pacific.
Participation from political leaders like Samoa Prime Minister Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, NZ Minister for Climate Change, Hon. James Shaw, NZ Minister for Pacific Peoples, Hon. Aupito Tofae Su’a William Sio, Papua New Guinea Provincial Governor Hon. Gary Juffa alongside grassroots activists the Pacific Climate Warriors, 5 Gyres, Tina Ngata, and well-known researchers Dr. Michael Mann, Aroha Te Pareake Mead, and others showed the real depth of commitment and knowledge in the region.
The Pacific is at the centre of climate change and many participants called for more research for the region and by local experts and communities. It is needed not just for the Pacific islands, but also to monitor things like sea level rise for the rest of the world. Because, as Prime Minister of Tuvalu says, “save Tuvalu and you will save the world.”
On August 26, 2016, the Obama Administration announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii from 360,000 to 1.5 million sq km. It is the largest no-take marine protected area (MPA) and the largest protected area in the world, land or sea. Coming at the end of the administration, the executive order demonstrates President Obama’s desire to have conservation as part of his legacy. More importantly, it is a reminder to the American public that its government must take measured steps to protect against the changing climate and support sustainable fisheries.
MPAs are not new, and are an important tool in government policy for conservation and fisheries management. In the U.S., they include a variety of environments, including open ocean, intertidal zones, estuaries, coastal areas and the Great Lakes. Many U.S. MPAs are mixed use, but some are no-take, which prohibit commercial and recreational extraction to enable ultimate protection for marine ecosystems. MPAs protect all types of habitats, plants and animals within U.S. waters, and even includes protection of shipwrecks or other cultural resources.
The purpose, management and legal authorities of MPAs also varies in the U.S. In 2000, President George Bush issued Executive Order 13158 which supported a comprehensive system of MPAs and established the MPA Center; yet it did not contain a mandate to override federal or state regulations or procedures. President Bush also originally designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, and as well as the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments in January 2009. Overall, in the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce oversees a majority (97%) of MPAs.
The National Marine Protected Areas Center maintains a Classification System which functionally describes MPAs using five characteristics common to MPAs: conservation focus, level of protection, permanence of protection, constancy of protection and scale of protection. These areas of classification dictate the purpose of establishing an MPA, “what it is intended to protect, how it achieves that protection, and how it may affect local ecosystems and local human uses.”
According to NOAA, the U.S. has more than 1200 MPAs which cover 26% (3.2 million sq km) of U.S. waters. No-take MPAs cover about half of that area, or 13% (1.5 million sq km). In comparison, about 14% of land in the U.S. is protected, and U.S. waters are 1.4 times greater than the country’s land area (12 million sq km).
There are no federal mandates to set aside a specific percentage of the U.S. marine environment for protection, but some proponents of conservation believe there should be targets. In a recent statement, President Obama acknowledged that Pacific islands are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels and rising temperatures. At the IUCN World Congress, Palau President Remengesau announced his desire for 30 percent of global waters to be protected (currently only 2 percent is protected). In Palau, 80 percent of its maritime territory has been designated a sanctuary to stem the effects of overfishing. With the State Department-led Our Ocean conference upcoming, this issue of global expansion of marine protection should stay on the agenda.
In part because they can be designated or classified in different ways (i.e. some areas can be more protected than others), MPAs are not controversial and receive bipartisan support. Importantly, they also require minimal effort from the American public; they do not require modification of the majority’s everyday lifestyles, but their complicity shows in a way that Americans care for the environment.
Marine protected areas will experience the same impacts from climate change as the wider ocean and coastal areas; but the intention is to create a pristine and protected laboratory to learn from these changes as well as to regenerate marine populations decimated by overfishing, IUU fishing, and bycatch. Protection from commercial and in some cases recreational fishing creates a space where coral and fish alike can take refuge. Ocean acidification continues to threaten species, especially coral reefs, and MPAs are intended to support ocean resilience. Scientists plan to monitor the fragile environment, and hope that by expanding the monument, it will also help nearby ecosystems to adapt.
While much of the world is still thinking about Brexit and its implications for their economy, Pacific island nations are racing against the rising waters as well as funding opportunities for climate resilience. As I’ve written previously, small island states must learn from each other in order to benefit from the complex world of climate finance. Leaders from the Pacific Islands Forum Smaller Islands States (SIS) [which includes Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu] are heeding that call, having solidified avenues for closer cooperation as part of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. While all the areas of collaboration are what one would expect in the Pacific, the coordination on climate change is the most important and essential. By working toward creating a joint proposal to organizations like the Green Climate Fund, SIS will be able to leverage internal expertise and build a robust platform for future climate financing applications.
At a Special Meeting of the SIS on June 24, 2016 in Palau, leaders agreed to the SIS Regional Strategy to enable greater attention to unique vulnerabilities of the SIS. Host Palau President Tommy Remengesau has been one of the greatest advocates for SIS and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in international fora. The new framework that SIS will operate under will complement existing policy advocacy with the technical component of climate finance. Additionally, the Pacific Islands Forum’s March 2016 accreditation to the Green Climate Fund as an observer presents an opportunity for internal knowledge creation.
Individual states have learned from the climate finance process as well and will be able to build off their experiences and share best practices. For example, Tuvalu was recently granted $36 million for its Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project; but it took more than one round of applications to succeed, because the country filed its technical specifications incorrectly. With the support of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) and the UN Development Programme, they were able to highlight the country’s vulnerability and correct technical aspects, creating a winning the application.
For the SIS group, the Cook Islands has also had an important success with the Green Climate Fund. In March 2016, the Cook Islands was the first Pacific country to receive readiness grant to help strengthen its National Designated Authority in order to work with the Green Climate Fund. The Cook Islands can use its experiences to inform SIS neighbors and others at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Finally, this move by Pacific states to work together on climate finance is important because governments have been urged to accelerate funding applications for the Green Climate Fund. This call is a signal that other countries have had difficulties with their applications outside of the Pacific and can benefit from shared best practices. It acknowledges the lack of a level playing field for smaller states that are constrained by physical and human capital.
With or without the benefit of large internationally-funded projects, Pacific states will continue to find ways to adapt to the changing climate and the threats being posed to their livelihoods. But it is in their best interest to continue to seek international funding, when everyone else is doing it. The amount of approved project spending in East Asia and the Pacific shows Indonesia, China and the Philippines have been the largest recipients of climate financing. Importantly for smaller countries, regional mechanisms do exist such as through the SPREP. Yet it will be the job of individual leaders to form not only greater unity around policy advocacy for climate change but also to ensure the relevant departments collaborate effectively on the bureaucratic and technical aspects of the finance application process.
This year, there will be national elections in Australia, Kiribati, Nauru and Samoa. Australia’s relatively new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be tested at the polls, and we are yet to see whether the public concentrates on the candidate’s personality or international issues, specifically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and immigration. Pacific island voters face local issues like storm recovery, welfare and some big personalities of their own.
On January 22, Vanuatu held snap elections because 14 Members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister, were involved in a corruption scandal last year. Kiribati goes to the polls on January 30 to replace President Anote Tong (due to term limits), who has been at the forefront of international advocacy for action on climate change. Next, Samoa will hold elections on March 4, with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele a “reasonable bet” given that he has held office since 1998. Last year, Nauru was plagued by concerns over its rule of law; because of this its leaders have asked for support from the Commonwealth Secretary when the country holds elections in June. Elections in Australia are not yet scheduled, but should take place before the year is over. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ousted in September 2015 and replaced by Malcolm Turnbull; the new leader is seen as more open to debate than Abbott, who is contesting his Parliamentary seat again this cycle. Locally, Australia’s Northern Territories will vote in August to determine whether the government can lease the port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge.
Bonus: NZ Binding Flag Referendum
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is behind the referendum to change the national flag. Critics call the move a vanity project in legacy building, in the absence of meaningful debates about New Zealand culture, Maori rights, or becoming a republic. In shocking news to many, late entry and hipster crowd favorite Red Peak did not make the final vote. There will be a binding referendum between March 3-24 requiring voters to select between the current flag or a silver fern design by Kyle Lockwood. Voters in Auckland confused about which design to select will get a demonstration on the Auckland harbor bridge.
The separatist movement in West Papua is as alive as ever, and human rights abuses committed by Indonesian forces have reportedly increased under the Jokowi government. In an address at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2015, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to step up monitoring and investigating efforts for human rights abuse and violations in Papua and West Papua. In November, Human Rights Watch published a 73-page report condemning the government of Indonesia for the lack of access for foreign journalists in the region. Meanwhile, in December, the Indonesian government warned other countries to respect its sovereignty and reportedly ordered international NGOs to close their offices in Papua. Much of the wealth from the resource-rich province goes to Jakarta, leaving West Papuans relatively poor.
There seemed to be a small amount of traction in the case for peace. Having spent the last 10 years in prison, West Papuan separatist leader Filep Karma was released from prison five years early. Yet, on the same day that Indonesian and Australian defense ministers met to declare closer ties, a young West Papuan was shot by the military while protesting a palm oil company. Pacific Islands Forum may be a platform for intervention, particularly when it releases information about its “fact finding mission” agreed to at the last Leaders Summit.
Overfishing has been a significant problem for the Pacific Island region, leading to competition for depleted fish stocks. Ineffective international management of the Pacific tuna supply, strong consumer demand and weak monitoring of vessels have led to overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and bycatch. And, in some cases, operators of IUU fishing vessels disregard basic labor standards. Illegal fishing cannot be solved unilaterally; Pacific Island Countries will need support from their island neighbors, larger international actors like the United States, Indonesia, Japan and Australia, as well as support from non-government groups.
Marine sanctuaries are one option for island states to protect local fisheries and recover populations lost due to overfishing. In October 2015, Palau created one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries that covers 80 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). You can read my article focusing on Palau for the Islands Society here. Palau lacks the enforcement ships to ensure its sanctuary is protected. In addition, the United States government has reneged on a fishing agreement with Pacific island nations which will leave them in a budget shortfall. Island states like Palau hope to replace declining income with an increase in tourism by wealthy travelers and will need international support to maintain sovereignty over its fisheries.
Among other groups, the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency is responsible for coordinating these efforts, and should be more vocal internationally this year.
The signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is scheduled for February 4, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. Meanwhile, the fate of the agreement is still uncertain. Protesters in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United States among others continue to demonstrate their displeasure for the 12-nation pact. As Canada’s government recently made clear, “signing does not equal ratifying.” In fact, ratification could take up to 2 years. Even in the United States, passage of the agreement through Congress is anything but certain; in an address in Washington, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lobbied the American Congress on the agreement. But what does the TPP mean for the Pacific? Australia and New Zealand are the only South Pacific countries party to the agreement, yet the agreement allows other states to join in the future.
The Pacific is currently negotiating its own free trade agreement, Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, or PACER-Plus, which focuses on removing tariffs and duties. Last September, PIF leaders agreed that they wanted negotiations for PACER-Plus to conclude by mid-2016, yet cohesive political leadership is lacking. Fiji and Papua New Guinea have warned about the potential inability to regulate and protect specific industries; PNG believes it will hurt its manufacturing sector. Additionally, non-government groups have questioned the ability of the agreement to produce significant benefits for island countries under its current status; while it enables Australian and New Zealand access to Pacific countries, it may not similarly provide support mechanisms for local producers to get their goods to the market.
As larger island countries and regional leaders, Fiji and PNG may have too much to lose if they walk out on PACER-Plus, much the way some states feel that have already agreed to the TPP. As these processes unfold, Pacific states will be watching how the TPP impacts smaller and less diverse economies.
Climate Change Leadership
Since 1992, sea levels have risen nearly 8cm according to Nasa, and the Pacific has experienced a faster increase than other areas. The plight of Pacific Island states has been well-documented by The Guardian and Pulitzer Center. Maintaining international commitment, funding and access to funding for climate change will be critical to adaptation and mitigation efforts. Kiribati President Anote Tong has reiterated that climate negotiations are not a game but “a matter of survival.” In part because of the persistence by Pacific island leaders, the latest UN climate agreement in Paris set a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius as opposed to the 2C limit preferred by industrialized states.
For 2016, the Pacific will need to continue to speak with a unified voice. Kiribati President Tong and Palau President Tommy Remengesau have led advocacy efforts, and increasingly Fiji under President Frank Bainimarama is making its voice more prominent. The Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) hosted by Fiji is now an observer in the United Nations; leaders have used the PIDF to caucus because it excludes Australia and New Zealand. The group came together for the 2015 Suva Declaration on Climate Change because, according to Bainimarama, “We in the Pacific tend to speak softly. It is in our nature. But on this issue, we needed to cry out with one voice, enough is enough. And we have. And it is all the more powerful for that.”
In June 2017, Fiji will host the United Nations Conference on Oceans and Seas. Throughout the year, but particularly in the lead up to regional and global meetings, look for Fiji to take an aggressive advocacy position.
This year states are being asked to take action on sustainable energy projects “irrespective of political status.” As host of this year’s 45th Pacific Islands Forum from July 29 to August 1, leaders of the Republic of Palau are doing their part to call global attention to the plight of Pacific islands. Palau’s efforts coincide with the United Nations designation of 2014 as the ‘Year of the Small Island Developing States’. Palau’s culture of conservation and preservation has helped the state to become a leader in climate adaptation and a formidable partner in pursuing multilateral solutions to migration challenges.
Now is the time to connect conservation with development. Nonprofits, government and the private sector are working together through the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) in an attempt to build resilient and sustainable island communities. Leaders of small island states like President Tommy Remengesau of Palau seek to reverse the trend of increasing spending on defense budgets and instead spend more on conservation, and peaceful relationship-building efforts. Through GLISPA, actors are trying to find “island solutions to island challenges” because “nature forms part of [their] economy.” At a GLISPA meeting earlier this year, Palau’s Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota quipped that the country has an informal motto to “take enough for yourself, leave some for others.” Over time, traditional concepts of conservation have changed with technology, enabling people to store more and for companies to produce more than they need to live sustainably.
President Remengesau is expecting at least 500 people to attend the Pacific Island Forum this year, including heads of state. During his recent visit to Japan, Remengesau extended an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the forum in the wake of Japan’s increasing development projects in the region. Japan continues to add to its Aid-for-Trade programs including a new agreement in June with the Kingdom of Tonga which will help the state to purchase goods from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-damaged region. To counter China’s diplomatic and economic efforts and as part of the ‘rebalance,’ the United States has notably increased its presence at PIF meetings since Secretary Clinton’s visit to the Cook Islands in 2012; last year the US sent Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell along with a delegation also representing Departments of State, Homeland Security, Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and US Pacific Command. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key may not attend due to upcoming elections in September; but, NZ recently created a new position and appointed former Labour Member of Parliament Shane Jones as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, to help coordinate and boost the country’s relationships, development programs and fisheries projects.
More important than the number of attendees is the commitments that can be made and followed through by larger states, and the impact a cohesive Pacific group of nations can have on swaying the international community to not only change their behaviors but help . At last year’s PIF meeting in the Solomon Islands, members signed the Majuro Declaration and made specific commitments, hoping to launch a “new wave of climate leadership.” So far it seems Australia has been the only state to move away from its commitments, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott holding the country’s plans hostage; Australia previously agreed to have 20% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2020 as well as its pursuit of emissions reductions targets. Small island states meanwhile created ambitious targets to transform their economies: Niue and the Cook Islands aim to generate 100% of their energy from renewables by 2020, Vanuatu seeks 65% by 2020, and Nauru and Solomon Islands have targets of 50% renewable energy generation by 2020 and 2015, respectively.
Emissions reductions are a more delicate political issue than changing sources of energy for both large and small states because of the economic implications for heavy polluting industries in particular and businesses in general; in the Pacific though, according to Kyota, the tension surrounding who is to blame for high emissions levels inducing climate change becomes old news when states must deal with the consequences including ocean acidification, overfishing and rising sea levels. Kiribati for example is facing certain sea level rise that will make its islands uninhabitable, and the government is investigating options for mass migration.
Palau has to evolve with “climate mitigation,” according to Ambassador Kyota, due to “things that were not caused by us.” Palau has a population of about 20,000 people, and is currently facing prospects of severe drought this year due to El Nino weather patterns. Multilateral cooperation will be critical to changing the rhetoric and discourse of climate adaptation and mitigation, and should aim to prevent free-riding. In opposition to Tony Abbott’s complaints about economic impacts of carbon pricing and other climate-related regulations, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong said “We’re not talking about the growth GDP, we’re not talking about what it means in terms of profit and losses of the large corporations, we’re talking about our survival.” For Kiribati, “our future is already here … we will be underwater.” President Tong recently announced that Kiribati would prohibit commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which is about the size of the state of California. President Remengesau has also recently called for a total ban on commercial fishing, in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which would create a sanctuary an area the size of Ukraine. Banning export-oriented commercial fishing is likely to have a larger impact on government budgets than on local fishermen and food supplies, as fishing revenues come primarily from selling permits to overseas vessels. For Kiribati, Palau and others, the short term losses will outweigh the benefits of restoring stocks of tuna for global food security and regional conservation efforts.
Thanks to Japanese investment through the Pacific Environment Community Fund, in March this year Palau installed a new solar power generation system and salt water desalination plant which exemplifies the water-energy nexus. It will reduce reliance on fossil fuels while also providing clean, safe drinking water to residents. According to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, administrator of the fund, the governments of Samoa, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Nauru, theSolomon Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Republic of Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Vanuatu have to date utilized the PEC Fund “for national renewable energy and seawater desalination projects.”
Many events are happening this year specifically to coincide with the Year of the Small Island Developing States, and there are positive signs that the international community is recognizing the opportunity to act to support the efforts of island states. On June 17, US President Barack Obama proposed to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in addition to other actions at the State Department-led “Our Ocean” conference; President Obama seeks to use his presidential authority if necessary but will work to create guidelines based on stakeholder input. The US, Japan and China as the world’s largest economies must continue to follow and model the efforts of the smallest states as they transform what we think of as sustainable development. As water increases in scarcity and ocean acidification intensifies in the Pacific, Australia should reverse its mistakes on climate initiatives. The PIF meeting in July hopes to continue the groundswell of action, leading to a well-prepared UN Conference on Small Island Developing States to be held in Samoa in September. At each multilateral setting, Japan, the European Union the US have continued to display their support for sustainable development initiatives, recognizing not only the pristine environment to be saved and peoples to support, but also the potential to showcase to their own publics the power of creating more areas for conservation and the need for a shift in discourse. It will be up to all actors – including Palau as leader of the PIF – to keep one another engaged in this critical year.
The Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy has gone from harsh to incomprehensible. If the center left Labor Party adopted the center right Liberal policy of offshore detention, where will policy turn if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming election? Last month on this blog I questioned Australia’s regional processing and detention center on the small island republic of Nauru; the center has caused political upheaval in a historically tumultuous political environment. This post examines the ‘no advantage’ policy and Australia’s scare tactics to avoid dealing with genuine asylum seekers.
The current asylum-seeker policy of the Gillard Labor Government is composed of recommendations from an expert panel initiated last year. The main recommendation instituted was a ‘no advantage’ policy to deter immigration. The policy provides no advantage for asylum-seekers attempting irregular entry into the country versus those who file an application for asylum in advance. Along with the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution this has led to arbitrary detentions in offshore processing sites with little impact on the number of migrants risking their lives since last August. As a result, the Australian government embarked on an audacious advertising campaign targeting potential refugees, most recently in Afghanistan. However, stemming people-smuggling and preventing irregular migration will not be solved by unilateral actions; Australia’s policies are worsening the plight of asylum-seekers, causing problems for its Pacific Island neighbors, and prohibiting meaningful discussion about why people are moving.
The ‘no advantage’ policy has led tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to be detained with no way to provide for their families and no hope of their claim for asylum to be met. According to the policy, “There is no advantage or benefit and, indeed, there is no guarantee people who arrive by boat will ever come to Australia.” If caught in and around Australia’s territorial waters, asylum-seekers will be sent to Manus Island, Nauru or Australia’s Christmas Island.
Just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20, there were signs that Australia would no longer send women and children to Manus Island for processing. Seventy asylum-seekers originally sent to Manus Island will be sent to Christmas Island, along with 40 family members. However, rather than promote a new, more humane policy shift, a spokesman for the immigration minister’s office said “There is no shift in government policy; families remain liable for transfer for regional processing.” This particular action of moving families is likely due to the recent international criticisms of Australia’s tactics and reports that the number of children in detention camps is at its highest level.
The conditions within detention centers, including the slow pace of (and at times nonexistent) processing, are unfair, unnecessary and exactly what the Australian government wants. In May, the Australian television program SBS Dateline aired an investigation into the center at Manus Island. Journalist Mark Davis confirmed the rumor that because asylum-seekers fear they will be detained forever without the ability to pay debts, provide for their families, or escape the mental torture within the center, they have no hope. Asylum-seekers soon become detainees, and many are continuing to harm themselves and in some cases attempt to commit suicide.
To further strengthen the crude policy, the Australian government maintains targeted advertising in the countries that asylum-seekers are desperately fleeing. Recently, the government spent over $555,000 on more television and radio advertisements in Afghanistan. The advertisements focus on the financial and psychological pain of Afghanis whose relatives were caught during their journey and sent to Manus Island. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Australia has 1,039 of its own troops in Afghanistan. It seems incomprehensible for Australia to be part of a coalition occupying a country and simultaneously advertising warnings to its people that if they attempt to flee to Australia they will likely die or be imprisoned. This discrimination against Afghan refugees is not new, however. In 2010, Australia implemented a processing freeze on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, claiming that conditions were adequate in their own countries. The advertisements aimed at individuals and families in developing, war-torn countries accurately reflects the dire situation that refugees will face if they try to seek asylum in Australia via boat; reinforcing an image of the unjust process, though, is not only failing to achieve results but should be a source of embarrassment for Australia.
The government of Afghanistan meanwhile claimed it was not consulted about the content of Australia’s anti-asylum-seeker advertisements. An Afghan official stated that “People will look at this ad and say this man failed, but won’t necessarily think it will happen to them.” The advertisements show a lack of engagement with Afghan communities and a lack of regard for issues faced at home by potential asylum-seekers (including those Australia’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan). If both governments were involved, the deterrence advertising could have greater legitimacy, showing the issues of asylum-seekers are serious for both governments. Instead, Australia is working almost unilaterally to deter what government officials and media have repeatedly called ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’.
Dr. Khalid Koser predicts that the security situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate in the next two years, leading to inevitably more asylum-seekers heading to Australia by boat. Thus the ‘no advantage’ policy and even opposition leader Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back toward Indonesia will be unlikely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan. Rather, the goals should be to secure Afghanistan, support internal processes such as elections, and encourage international mechanisms for processing and taking care of asylum-seekers before they reach perilous boats.
The severe problems in Afghanistan are, however, not the only issues leading to an increase in people seeking asylum in Australia. Over the last few years, there has been a spike in asylum-seekers traveling via boat to Australia. Already this year from January to mid-May, almost 9,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat. Different world events including the global financial crisis, civil wars and other ‘push factors’ led to this increase. In June 2013 alone, at least 55 asylum seekers have drowned with dozens of additional people lost at sea while headed to Australia. The lack of media access to the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island prohibits discussions about why people are traveling to Australia as well as the conditions they face upon arrival. As the statistics and harrowing stories show, people continue to flee violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and remain undeterred from either the hazardous journey or arbitrary detention.
The Labor government did not anticipate the record number of arrivals this year and underestimated the cost of maintaining detention centers. This lack of planning led to a budget increase for asylum-seekers but at the expense of other programs within the overseas development aid budget. Arbitrary detention places a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer in addition to the financial and psychological pressure on asylum-seekers (including women and children).
Unfortunately the current policy has found support among the Australian public. Prior to the Labor Governments’ reinstitution of the Pacific Plan, in July 2012 Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum-seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Respondents indicated the following: 12% answered ‘too tough’, 11% ‘right approach’, while 60% indicated ‘too soft’. Also prior to the policy change, a United Nations Refugee Agency survey asked Australians if boat arrivals make them “more or less sympathetic” towards asylum-seekers; “32% responded ‘much less sympathetic’, only 8% ‘much more sympathetic.’” Finally, an Essential Research poll asked Australians in August 2012 if they supported the reinstitution of offshore asylum-seeker processing in PNG and Nauru; 67% supported, and 18% opposed. While much of the world is facing a prolonged recession, Australia’s economic boom has not made Australians more amenable to asylum-seekers and new immigrants. Rather, Australians have become more guarded.
On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the national governments are trying to honor commitments they made to Australia in their management of offshore processing and detention centers. At the same time, in facilitating the ‘no advantage’ policy, the states are conflicted in their desire to ensure asylum-seekers are protected and treated adequately. Prime Minister O’Neill of PNG has stated that he wants the asylum-seekers on Manus Island to be able to help the community, work, have a normal sense of life” and be able to move around the country. On several occasions Prime Minister O’Neill claims he has promoted this idea to Australia; ultimately, it is up to Australia how asylum-seekers are managed and cared for on the offshore centers, despite how often the Australian officials claim it is up to the local governments.
Rather than deterring irregular maritime migration to Australia, the ‘no advantage’ policy has put unfair pressure on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and promotes unreasonable treatment of asylum-seekers. As an international process and with scrutiny from the United Nations, Australia’s offshore processing and detention centers should be accessible to journalists who have already helped identify areas where bilateral and international dialogue is lacking. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and due to increasing violence in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, a record number of asylum-seekers continue to travel via boat toward Australia. Too many continue to drown along the way. For domestic political reasons, there is an overemphasis on the seizure and detention of people in the Asia-Pacific, with not enough regional discussion on push factors or truly regional solutions. Instead of removing protections and supporting arbitrary detention to punish them, Australia should focus on helping to protect vulnerable groups before they are forced to make the journey.