Islanders without an Island What Will Become of Tuvalu's Climate Refugees?

International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
Von Anwen Roberts

Shuuichi Endou is photographing every single citizen in a country. It may sound ludicrous but it is entirely plausible. After all, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu only has about 11,000 inhabitants, and the 41-year-old Japanese photographer has already captured the images of the 340 people who live on the Nukulaelae atoll. By the time next year’s G-8 Summit in Japan rolls around, the other 10,500 portraits should be finished. Endou wants to use them to give the rich and powerful a jolt, so that they finally understand the need to reduce emissions and stop global warming.

The photographs of the Tuvaluans are meant to give climate change a human face. They are a people whose country is doomed to disappear. The group of islands lies just 10 centimeters (roughly four inches) above sea level; if the average sea level continues to rise, in just 50 years there will be nothing here but waves.

Some of the islands are already uninhabitable; the ocean nibbles at the narrow landmass from all sides. Nine islands totaling just 26 square kilometers (10 square miles) in area make up the fourth-smallest country in the world. There’s hardly any industry, no military, few cars and just eight kilometers of paved roads.

The majority of the people make their living from fishing and agriculture. The country is so small that there is only a rough division of labor, with people acting as cooks and captains, ice cream salesmen and politicians.

Environmentalists have long worried about the fate of this tiny Pacific state. Now, however, international legal experts have also taken up the topic of its imminent demise. A nation's “territorial integrity” is one of the paramount legal principles. It’s unprecedented, however, for a country to completely lose its territory without the use of military force.

"Is it supposed to become a virtual country?" asked Rainer Lagoni, Professor of Maritime Law at the University of Hamburg. There is no legal definition for a country entirely without land.

The case of these Atlantis countries is so convoluted that Lagoni has all his students and postgraduates studying it. Only one thing seems clear so far: without a physical territory, all the Tuvaluans become stateless. There is no general right to a back-up nation or to citizenship of a neighboring country. Those who are already emigrating are not considered refugees. Even so, their numbers are growing. This island nation has already dealt with floods, tropical storms and El Niño for a long time. But those studying climate change are predicting an even bleaker future. Every schoolchild in Tuvalu learns to fear "global warming." It serves as the collective term for spoiled harvests, salty pools and the waves that keep rolling closer and closer, right up to airport runway.

"Many inhabitants of the main island of Funafuti want to emigrate," says Endou, who not only photographs each citizen but also asks about his or her current living situation. Young families in particular are fleeing the earth that is slowly sinking beneath their feet. Over 3,000 Tuvaluans have already left their homeland; the largest exile community is in Auckland, New Zealand. In the meantime, however, refugees are increasingly knocking on locked doors, particularly in nearby Australia, where immigration has long been an election issue.

A "gradual withdrawal" of the "ocean refugees" via a special certification scheme as proposed by the German federal government is hardly feasible. The term climate refugee is itself full of inconsistencies. Under the Geneva Convention, climate damage is not a basis for humanitarian asylum. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t guarantee a basic right to a sound environment.

The Tuvalu government has opted, therefore, for political pressure. Since it joined the United Nations in 2000, the island nation has managed to place its concerns high on the organization's agenda. Its efforts seem to have borne fruit: Tuvalu is now regarded as a prime example of just how much damage climate change can do to a country.

"Of course it doesn’t carry the same weight as Darfur,” says Lagoni. The apocalyptic campaign has nevertheless been highly effective -- and has also revealed some of the blind spots in international law. Roda Verheyen, a lawyer from Hamburg, focused on the damage caused by climate change and international law for her doctorate back in 2003. At the time, she met with plenty of skepticism -- but since then her work has attracted growing interest. For a long time legal academics had categorically rejected the notion that a country like Tuvalu could claim damages for its devastated environment -- after all it would be impossible to name the guilty party.

But in the meantime a growing number of lawyers have come to consider such claims legitimate. For example, the State of California’s case against major automakers is an indication of the future of climate change in jurisprudence -- even though that case only deals with national, as opposed to international, law.

Some experts now believe changes will have to be made to international law to deal with the impact of climate change. Tuvalu is not alone -- other small island nations like Kirabati, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives are also concerned about their future.

Regardless of what happens the island nation of Tuvalu will at least survive its physical demise in the virtual world. Even today the country's main source of income is from selling the rights to its national ".tv" Internet domain.

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