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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Australia's Climate Visas for Tuvalu

Air Date: Week of

Tuvalu is a small Pacific Island nation nearly at sea level. (Photo: INABA Tomoaki, Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use)

The tiny island nation of Tuvalu faces inundation from rising seas, and a new treaty would allow a limited number of its citizens to study, work or live in Australia under a climate-related visa program. Abul Rizvi is the former Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Immigration in Australia, and he joins Host Steve Curwood to explain the geopolitical implications of the deal.


DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

The tiny Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu has signed a treaty with Australia that would create a new climate -related visa. It would allow a limited number of Tuvaluans to study, work or live in Australia as their homeland faces inundation from rising seas. The treaty, called the Falepili Union would admit 280 Tuvaluans each year, ranging from professionals to agricultural workers. It was signed by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano on November 10. But former PM Enele Sopoaga has vowed to negate the deal if he wins his old job back after the Tulvalu elections in January. For more, we turn now to Abul Rizvi who is the Former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration in Australia. Welcome to Living on Earth Abul!

RIZVI: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: We're recording this during cop 28, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations, which has moved forward with a loss and damage program. And people know that Tuvalu is pretty much at sea level and expected to vanish beneath the waves, if any of the predictions that the scientists have given us come true. So what do you make of the fact that Australia is willing to talk directly about the impact of climate and the need to reach out to your neighbors there to help them with what's coming?

RIZVI: I think it's a very significant step, I think, for Australia to have done this. And I'm not aware of many other countries that actually have visa programs directly linked to climate. Having said that, I think it's important to remember that the objective of this visa is not solely climate, it is also very much about geopolitical issues in this space. And it is also about attracting agricultural workers to Australia. So it's designed to do three things, not just the one. But nevertheless, the fact that climate is explicitly mentioned is very significant.

The ocean is never far in Tuvalu. (Photo: INABA Tomoaki, Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use)

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that Australia and Tuvalu have yet to formally approve this question of, of a visa and the terms of it and I gathered, there are some security aspects to this proposal that play into the geopolitical situation that you allude to. So what's up here? How might elections impact the notion of having this union come together with these visas?

RIZVI: I think from Tuvalu’s perspective, the key constraint being placed on it by this agreement, is that before Tuvalu can enter into any security agreements any infrastructure development agreements, anything like that with another nation like China Tuvalu must first consult Australia. And in that sense, Tuvalu citizens may view this as something of a restriction on their sovereignty.

CURWOOD: What are the politics of that? How does the Tuvalu view Australia? How does Tuvalu view China? And what might make them hesitate to say, “Well, you know, we really do want the freedom to pick”?

RIZVI: I think Tuvalu may well look across at the experience of its neighbors in the Solomon Islands, where the government in the Solomon Islands has switched between its support arrangements with Taiwan to arrangements with China. What Australia will want is that Tuvalu, does not do the same.

CURWOOD: In recent decades, the Australian government has swung from one type of party to another kind of back and forth, though we've seen this in terms of climate action. One government is interested in taking a lot of action. The other says, let's dig more coal. How vulnerable is this visa to swings in the political divide that you have there?

In 2011, Tuvalu experienced a drought so intense that public water collection points were set up. (Photo: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use)

RIZVI: There is some vulnerability there. One thing about this visa is that it is designed to increase Australia's geopolitical influence and counter China. The opposition in Australia is obsessed about countering China far more than the current government. And if this arrangement was to be abandoned under a change of government and Tuvalu did embrace China, the opposition in Australia would have egg on its face. And I don't think it would be prepared to go down that path.

CURWOOD: And when you say, by the way, what Australia will want. I know that the United States has been deeply engaged with the Pacific Alliance that includes the UK, and Australia and New Zealand. I mean, how much pressure Do you think there's actually indirectly coming from the US that the small island state be, well, let's use the word blocked from making a deal with China?

RIZVI: I think it's entirely in the United States interests for China to be limited in its ability to infiltrate into the Pacific, I think Australia and the United States interest in that are quite aligned. But both the United States and Australia in terms of their relationship with China seems to be evolving. There was a much more tense relationship, perhaps a couple of years ago. There has been some cooling off in the last year or so.

CURWOOD: So describe to us please the role that Australia plays in Pacific Island migration these days.

During COP15 in 2009 demonstrators protested for new protocols to reduce global emissions from larger countries. (Photo: Lauri Myllyvirta, Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use)

RIZVI: So Australia's role in Pacific Island migration has increased quite significantly in the last decade. Prior to that, Australia had very little links in terms of migration from Pacific islands apart from New Zealand, New Zealand had much more extensive arrangements with the Pacific and has had those for much longer than Australia. But Australia's arrangements now are not without their difficulties. And the difficulties are very similar to the difficulties that all agriculture visas have had, both in North America and in Europe. Essentially, what has happened in those two regions of the world with agriculture visas, is there's been a whole high level of exploitation of the workers, workers being underpaid, poorly treated, forced to work in very, very, extremely hot conditions, working long hours for poor pay. The concern is that situation is being replicated in Australia, even though Australia knew of those problems, had a view that it had enough protections for the workers in place. The evidence is now suggesting that perhaps the protections were not enough. And Australia is experiencing the same issues as North America and Europe with agricultural workers.

CURWOOD: So to what extent are their monies attached to this proposal that would say send to Tuvaluans to school to get a better education, whether it's in health care or it or the things in the modern society?

RIZVI: I very much hope there is money that the Australian Government will put up to assist Tuvalu citizens acquire those skills. We haven't seen those details, as the Australian government considers itself in a very tight budgetary situation, whether it's prepared to be generous in that regard or not, I don't know. But I would be strongly encouraging the Australian Government to be generous with skills development, to ensure we don't end up with the same problems with this visa as we've had with other visas.

CURWOOD: So at the moment, there's really no international legal definition of a climate refugee, and therefore very few protections for those who are forced to leave their homes due to climate related disasters or changes. To what extent does this visa program impact future rights for climate refugees, not just in Australia, not just in Tuvalu, but around the world?

RIZVI: I think this is a cutting edge visa. And it may well help other countries think about this more deeply. Having said that, I would be very surprised if there could be success in changing the 1951 definition of refugee. The level of agreement across so many countries required would be just extraordinarily difficult and painfully slow.

Abul Rizvi is the former Deputy Secretary for Australia’s Department of Immigration, having served in that role for over 20 years. (Photo: Courtesy of Abul Rizvi)

CURWOOD: To what extent do other countries, other rich countries who have used lots of carbon based fuels to make themselves rich. To what extent do they really need to look hard at developing visas for people who can't live in the places that they currently live because of rising seas?

RIZVI: I think they absolutely need to look at those visas. And I think it's good, Australia has started down that path. And I think many countries will look at Australia's experience, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and they hopefully do take action in those areas. But what's happening across North America, across parts of South America, across Europe, in terms of the treatment of refugees, none of that is really improving. It's, it's getting tighter, harder, more punitive. And given that development, I fear that from a climate perspective, many nations will close their hearts in this space. Certainly, if you look at the authoritarian leaders that have emerged in Europe, may emerge again or return in the United States and what's happening indeed in Canada, in places such as Argentina, I don't see a lot of sympathy for refugees in those circumstances.

CURWOOD: Anyone who asked to leave their ancestral homeland is likely to have a very painful experience, feel traumatized and, and really are only going to do this as a last resort. So to the extent you have insight into this, how are the Tuvaluans reacting to the news of the possibility of these visas?

RIZVI: I think it's a double-edged sword for them. On the one hand, it further confirms to them that their nation is in trouble from climate change. On the other hand, at least there is an escape route. And I think they will see that as a positive and they will hopefully view Australia positively in that regard. I'm sure that's what Australia is intending or hoping for.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time with me today. Abul Rizvi is the former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration in Australia.

RIZVI: Very enjoyable. Thank you very much.



RNZ | ”Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union 'Shameful' - Former Tuvalu PM”

Prime Minister of Australia | ”Joint Statement on the Falepili Union between Tuvalu and Australia”

Time | “Australia Signs Historic Climate Refuge and Security Pact with Tuvalu”

UNSW Sydney | “Australia's Offer of Climate Migration to Tuvalu Residents is Groundbreaking - and Could Be a Lifeline Across the Pacific.”

The Guardian | “Copenhagen Talks Break Down as Developing Nations Split Over 'Tuvalu' Protocol"

Short Biography for Abul Rizvi

Read Abul Rizvi's latest work on Net Migration


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