• Rezultati Niso Bili Najdeni



Academic year: 2022



Celotno besedilo




Paula Espuelas Zarpellao

Mednarodno varstvo oseb, razseljenih zaradi okoljskih razlogov International protection of environmentally displaced persons

Magistrsko delo

Ljubljana, 2022




Paula Espuelas Zarpellao Mentorica: Prof. dr. Petra Roter

Mednarodno varstvo oseb, razseljenih zaradi okoljskih razlogov International protection of environmentally displaced persons

Magistrsko delo

Ljubljana, 2022




First of all, very special thank you to my mentor Dr. Petra Roter, for her help, her time, her dedication, and her patience. Her careful revisions, her relevant suggestions and her guidance have been essential to write the thesis.

A great thank you to my mother, Silvia, and my sister, Carla, for their encouragement, their constant support, and unconditional faith in me. And to my father, Floren, who I am sure would be proud. Without them I would have not made it to Slovenia.

A huge thank you to Danilo for his insight, his observations, and his reassurance. To Ajda for her assistance, her guidance, and her enormous help.

To Teja for her translations and her encouragement. And to Matija for his motivational words.



International protection of environmentally displaced persons

This master thesis addresses the protection gap that exists for those who are forced to displace given the consequences of environmental degradation. It follows a normative goal as it seeks to find a solution within public international law for this new category of individuals. This master thesis, thus, highlights shared characteristics of environmentally displaced persons with a view to categorizing them so they would be able to receive adequate protection according to their specific needs. As the thesis accepts the significance of our understanding of social phenomena and its impact on our behavior, it analyzes the issue within the social constructivist framework. The thesis assesses various possible regimes of protection that could include the environmentally displaced persons, and possible implications that would be derived from the inclusion of the affected persons in the scope of application of those regimes and their norms. The thesis shows that the environmentally displaced persons, due to their unique characteristics, require a sui generis categorization and a regime of protection to achieve a standardized level of protection in line with international human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Key words: environmentally displaced persons, forced migration, environmental degradation, climate change, regime of protection.

Mednarodno varstvo oseb, razseljenih zaradi okoljskih razlogov

To magistrsko delo obravnava varstveno vrzel, v kateri se znajdejo posamezniki, ki so se bili prisiljeni razseliti zaradi posledic degradacije okolja. Delo sledi normativnemu cilju, saj skuša identificirati mednarodopravne rešitve za to novo kategorijo posameznikov, ki so se znašli v ranljivem položaju. Namen magistrskega dela je izpostaviti skupne značilnosti okoljsko razseljenih oseb za potrebe njihove pravilne razvrstitve in zagotavljanja varstva, ki bo temeljilo na njihovih posebnih potrebah oz. bo te potrebe ustrezno naslovilo. Delo se osredotoča na bistvene značilnosti okoljsko razseljenih oseb in poskuša določiti, ali spadajo v eno od že obstoječih kategorij ali jih je potrebno razumeti kot kategorijo sui generis. Ker magistrsko delo izhaja iz predpostavke, da je naše razumevanje družbenih pojavov temelj za naše delovanje, obravnava problematiko okoljsko razseljenih oseb in njihovega varstva s pomočjo družbenokonstruktivističnega konceptualno- teoretskega okvirja. Magistrsko delo obravnava različne režime varstva, ki bi lahko vključevali tudi okoljsko razseljene osebe, in možne posledice vključitve prizadetih oseb v različne kategorije.

Magistrsko delo pokaže, da okoljsko razseljene osebe zaradi svojih edinstvenih značilnosti zahtevajo kategorizacijo in režim varstva sui generis, saj jim je le tako mogoče zagotoviti standardizirano raven varstva skladno z mednarodnimi normami človekovih pravic in temeljnih svoboščin.

Ključne besede: okoljsko razseljene osebe, prisilne migracije, degradacija okolja, podnebne spremembe, režim varstva.



1 Introduction ... 8

2 Social constructivist role in the creation of a legitimizing discourse for environmentally displaced persons ... 15

2.1 Theoretical framework: actors’ role in shaping social reality ... 15

2.2 Influence of the discourse on the perception of social reality: operationalization of the discourse analysis ... 18

2.2.1 Identity-based discourse: the role of identity in international relations ... 19

2.2.2 Normative discourse: the role of norms in addressing actor behavior ... 21

3 The case study: environmentally displaced persons in Oceania ... 25

3.1 The problem of environmental displacement in the Pacific region: the impact on small island states ... 25

3.3.1 The Republic of Kiribati ... 26

3.3.2 Tuvalu ... 29

3.2 Analysis of the shared traits in the cases of Oceania: the key to consolidation and understanding of the environmentally displaced persons as a group of forced migrants ... 31

4 International categories and legal regimes regarding forced displacements ... 37

4.1 Refugees ... 38

4.2 Internally displaced persons ... 41

4.3 Stateless persons ... 44

4.4 Consequences of applying any of the existing categories of forced migrants to environmentally displaced persons. ... 46

5 Sui generis protection of environmentally displaced persons ... 48

5.1 Scope of application ... 49

5.2 Scope of protection ... 51

5.3 Implementation of the sui generis category and regime of protection ... 53

5.3.1 Universal implementation of the sui generis categorization and mechanisms of protection ... 53

5.3.2 Regional implementation ... 55

6 Conclusion ... 58

7 References ... 67



Appendix I Table 1 Classification of environmental displacement ... 89

Appendix I Table 2 Political map of the Republic of Kiribati ... 90

Appendix I Table 3 Topographic map of the island of Tarawa ... 91

Appendix I Table 4 Topographic map of the island of Kiritimati ... 92

Appendix I Table 5 Political map of Tuvalu ... 93

Appendix I Table 6 Topographic map of the island of Funafuti ... 94

Appendix I Table 7 World map of the impact of environmental degradation ... 95



AOSIS ... alliance of small island states

COP25 ... the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC EESC ... European Economic and Social Committee

IDMC ... International Displacement Monitoring Centre IDPs ... internally displaced persons

IGOs ... intergovernmental organizations

IOM ... International Organization for Migration IPCC ... Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change NGOs ... non-governmental organizations

OCHA ... Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OHCHR ... Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights PAC ... Pacific access category

R2P ... responsibility to protect UN ... United Nations

UNDP ... United Nations Development Program

UNFCCC ... United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNHCR ... United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

WHO ... World Health Organization



Climate change is portrayed through a series of environmental modifications that come with grave consequences. As noted by several authors (Carr, 2005; McLeman & Smit, 2006; Perch-Nielsen et al., 2008; Black et al., 2011; Biermann & Boas, 2012; Piguet, 2013; Cook et al., 2016; Zambrano et al., 2019; Malhi et al., 2020), there have been notorious changes in the natural landscapes and the ecosystems with many negative consequences (Renaud et al., 2011, p. e6; Zambrano et al., 2019, p. 4). These environmental damages include coastal erosion, floods, the rise of sea level caused by the meltdown of the polar icecaps, land degradation, and declining land fertility (Atapattu, 2009, p. 608; Bilak et al., 2021).

Those consequences have detrimental effects for the inhabitants of the affected areas who are often forced to flee as a consequence of the drastic changes in their habitat caused by an environmental stimulus (McLeman & Smit, 2006, p. 3; Boano et al., 2008; Zetter, 2014). As described by Myers (2002, p. 609):

people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries, many being internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi-permanent if not permanent basis, with little hope of a foreseeable return.

Human displacement in the context of climate change and environmental degradation is a heterogeneous phenomenon, “which takes multiple forms along a set of dimensions – timing, duration, direction and distance, and degree of voluntariness, to name a few” (Gonzalez Tejero et al., 2020, p. 5). It is estimated that this phenomenon has affected from around 200 million to a billion people who have moved due to environmental factors since 2008 (Anzellini et al., 2020).1 In 2019, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) (2020, pp. 4, 10) estimated that

1 The compilation of exhaustive data on environmental displacement is complex, as there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. The numbers provided by the IDMC include persons who evacuated with different characteristics and under different circumstances and conditions: e.g., it includes persons who evacuated before and after a disaster;

with a different duration – some persons’ displacement will last a short period and others will face an indefinite one, persons who have displaced within national borders, abroad within their region or elsewhere; persons whose displacement would involve loss and damage of property whereas in other cases it would not (Gonzalez Tejero et al., 2020). While all these displacements have environmental degradation as a common nexus, there are gaps in the data collection that impact how the environmental issues are addressed. For more on the ten the 10 key data gaps for policy development and operation plans to deal with environmental displacements, see Ginnetti (2020).



there were over 24 million weather-related forceful internal displacements. However, displacements can have various drivers, and it is hard to distinguish in which cases environment is indeed the main or only driver of migration (Boano et al., 2008; Laczko & Aghazarm, 2009, p. 69;

Warner, 2010, p. 2; Kälin, 2019; Bilak et al., 2021). Moreover, it is rare that environmental issues are identified as the main reason for displacement. In many regions, the lack of resources and degradation of the land lead to violent conflicts or wars for control over resources, which cause displacements (Adger et al., 2018; DeJesus, 2018). In other instances, the lack of availability of resources leads to economic issues such as recession, inflation, and volatile prices, which all generate inequality and poverty (Pettinger, 2019). Technically, the reasons for those displacements are a violent conflict or a specific economic problem (or problems), however, the root of the conflict is the scarcity of resources induced by environmental degradation (Bates, 2002; Perch- Nielsen et al., 2008; Jayawardhan, 2017; Heslin et al., 2019).

In cases of natural disasters or sudden-onset disasters, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, cyclones, and hurricanes, wildfires, the link between the environmental disaster and the displacement is undoubted (Black et al., 2011; Anzellini et al., 2020, p. 10). However, in the case of natural incidents or slow-onset damages such as droughts, sea-level rise, desertification, ocean acidification, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity, the impact on environment is gradual (Podesta, 2019, p. 3). The effect of the slow-onset hazards is difficult to compute as the displacement can happen years after progressive and manifest consequences of environmental degradation, or they can be gradual (over a longer period of time). The damage of the slow-onset and sudden-onset disasters is equally harmful to the livelihood of the inhabitants, but due to a lack of a sudden environmental disaster as a trigger, in most of the slow-onset cases, environmental degradation is wrongfully excluded as the reason for displacement (Perch-Nielsen et al., 2008; Zetter, 2017b).

This highlights an asymmetry in the treatment of people displaced by environmental reasons. It problematizes the lack of protection granted to some of the affected persons depending on the immediateness of the environmental damage and the perceived forcefulness. Individuals forced to displace as a result of natural disasters that produce immediate and quantifiable damage are seen as direct causalities of environmental degradation; whereas those who are forced to displace due to slow-onset incidents are seen less as a result of the environmental deterioration and more as just economic migrants (Renaud et al., 2011; Ransan-Cooper et al., 2015; Barnett & McMichael,



2018).2 Over time, as the slow-onset degradation of environment becomes more prominent, however, as there is no noticeable trigger prompting displacement, the connection between the displacement and environmental degradation is blurred, which affects the perception of forcefulness and decreases the likelihood to perceive international aid and protection.3 This can severely affect individuals in vulnerable situations, and it raises a number of issues for scholarly research – including a practical issue as to how the existing international norms could be applied to environmentally affected persons.

The goal of the thesis is to determine how to ensure protection to the persons affected by environmental degradation under international law. This thesis will focus particularly on the people forced to displace by the slow-onset changes in the environment,4 not including the people who are urgently displaced as a result of a sudden environmental damage. The reason for the exclusion of the latter group is the fact that the forcefulness of the displacement in an emergency is indisputable, thus they are covered by humanitarian organizations and legal provisions that are established to respond to disasters (Warner, 2010, p. 16; Lennartz et al., 2021).

The slow-onset environmental degradation has risen awareness amongst some authors (e.g., Zetter

& Morrissey, 2004; Williams, 2008; Kolmannskog, 2012; Jayawardhan, 2017) who have exposed the lack of protection for those who are forced to flee for environmental reasons. The thesis parts from the hypothesis that the absence of protection mechanisms for the affected persons, is rooted

2 This category of forced migrants is not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention, as the choice in migration is not motivated by any of the causes included specifically in this treaty, such as prosecution, risk of harm, and threats to their livelihood. Rather, the people affected by the ‘slow-onset’ degradation are motivated or induced to displace by environmental and personal circumstances, and there are no conditions or burdens placed in the case of a return, which can lead to an incorrect perception of non-forced displacement (Nicholson & Kumin, 2017, p. 17).

3 There are mechanisms of disaster-relief to aid for the victims of natural disasters, which are focused on temporal re- location, repairing and rebuilding infrastructure, crops, and property, restoring the land and livelihoods of the affected persons, compensation, and retribution for the damages, and other remedies (Weerasinghe, 2014, pp. 23–25; Podesta, 2019, p. 2). However, these mechanisms are in most cases underdeveloped, and they only provide temporal and partial aid to people facing the consequences of climate change and natural disasters.

4 Renaud et al. (2011, p. e16) proposed a framework for determining environmental migrant sub-categories, classifying them regarding a possibility to maintain a livelihood in their homelands after environmental degradation. For more on this sub-categories see Table 1 in Appendix I. However, it is relevant to stress that human displacement in the context of environmental degradation and climate change cannot be classified in a categorical grouping; rather it moves along the voluntary-forced continuum. To determine whether a particular displacement was motivated, induced, or forced by the environment, it would require focusing on the degree to which each person had the freedom to make their own decisions, which is a very challenging task in quantitative data collection mechanisms (Gonzalez Tejero et al., 2020).

Thus, for the purpose of this thesis, the environmentally displaced persons will be those individuals classified as environmentally forced migrants by Renaud et al. (2011, p. e16).



in the lack consensus and understanding of environmental displacements (Dun & Gemenne, 2008, p. 10; Kolmannskog, 2012, p. 9). Without agreeing on the elements that trigger the displacements and the forcefulness of the situation it is challenging to reach a consensus on a category environmentally displaced persons fit in – either economic migration or forced migration, and it is difficult to expect an agreement on what protection is to be granted to the affected persons (Bates, 2002, p. 467). Academics, legislators, and the affected persons use primarily three main (and legally very different) categorizations for such situations: environmental refugees,5 internally displaced persons,6 and environmental migrants.7

This study follows a normative goal as it aims to analyze how specific groups of forced migrants can obtain access to human rights – mostly in terms of economic, social and cultural rights, preservation of dignity, and rights to compensation for their struggle – and fundamental freedoms under international law. The question derives from the gap in the protection, especially applicable to persons in need of protection due to displacement as a consequence of environmental degradation. To be able to fulfill the goal of the thesis, it is essential to understand the identity of the environmentally displaced persons as a group and determine their susceptible position in the

5 ‘Environmental refugee’ is a term that has been minted by Essam El-Hinnawi (1985) in the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme. It is mostly used by journalists and a few scholars (e.g., Myers & Ngo, 2005; Biermann &

Boas, 2010) because it is a powerful political statement. However, the term lacks a legal basis, as it does not conform to the status of refugee established in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951, Arts. 12–19). Most of the affected persons reject this terminology because it portrays them as victims (McNamara & Gibson, 2009).

6 ‘Internally displaced’ is a term created in the Guiding Principles on Human Displacement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (UNHCR, 2004). This denomination is used by some academics (e.g., Mooney, 2005; Guterres, 2008; Williams, 2008; Renaud et al., 2011; Kolmannskog, 2012) as well as by some organs of the UN. Guterres, in his position as the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), encouraged the use of this term and declared that this category was also to include those who were forced to flee internationally. He justified it by recognizing that the affected persons “should receive protection and assistance”, which implies that they are not supposed to be classified as migrants, but he argued that they would not be qualified as refugees either because the legal framework covering refugees in “the context of persons fleeing indiscriminate violence” might lead to unreliable and uneven application of the refugee regime (Guterres, 2008, pp. 4–6).

7 ‘Environmental migrant’ is a term that has been coined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2007).

In general, this term is used to empower the affected persons and portray them as rational, resilient, and able to adapt to new circumstances (Methmann & Oels, 2015, p. 52). However, a migrant is typically seen as “someone who chooses to move, not because of a direct threat to life or freedom, but in order to find work, for education, family reunion, or other personal reasons” (Nicholson & Kumin, 2017, p. 17), which implies that there is no forceful driver for the displacement and that there is an option to return home at any given time. This is not true in the case of environmentally displaced persons, as it overlooks the role of environmental degradation as a trigger that prompts forceful displacements, and it ignores the impossibility to return because the damage to the environment makes the livelihood unviable.



international community. Further, there is a need to delimit the people who are entitled to protection and to reach a consensus on the substance of such protection.

Not only do legal classifications produce a change in the epistemological world but once a category is chosen and accepted over another one, it also produces different legal consequences, which means that there is a change in the ontological world (Onuf, 1989; Hopkins & Reicher, 1996, pp.

69–71; Moses & Knutsen, 2012, p. 172). In other words, “norms do not merely restrain behavior but constitute identities and impose meanings of what to count as legitimate reality” (Price, 1995, pp. 87–88). Consequently, to create a legitimate reality for the affected persons, normative support is needed. The lack of normative grounds leads to a lack of a clear categorization of this phenomenon, thereby weakening global support due to the uncertainty. In the present thesis, the term ‘environmentally displaced persons’ will be used to define the persons who have been affected by the non-immediate effects of environmental degradation (i.e., by various types of degradation of the environment that make living in a certain place no longer possible). The reason for employing this term is related to the fact that it does not imply any juridical inaccuracy and it is the category that is most closely related to the terms used by the IOM (2007) and by the UNHCR (2015), both of which reject the use of the term refugee to refer to this phenomenon. It is also preferred amongst the affected persons, as the category of refugees strips them of their resilience and ability to adapt, and the category of migrants does not portray the shared environmental responsibility (McNamara

& Gibson, 2009; Nollkaemper & Jacobs, 2011; Renaud et al., 2011).

The theoretical framework within which this analysis will be carried out is social constructivism, which is based on the assumptions “that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature.” (Wendt, 1999, p. 1), signifying that reality and social order are illusory and need to be inserted within a complex social context (Garfinkel, 2002, p. 91; Moses & Knutsen, 2012, pp. 204–205). This means that the actors, by interacting amongst themselves, create knowledge based on their understanding of the world (Weber, 1949, p. 81; McMahon, 1997). Furthermore, for any categorization to properly function, there needs to be an agreement about it among the actors.

The data collection in social constructivism formulates “cross-cultural, law-like casual generalizations which may, in turn, be explained by theories” (MacIntyre, 1972, p. 9). Knowledge



in social constructivism is relativistic and dependent on context, time, and a subjective perspective, thus interpretivism is the appropriate frame to process the data (Moses & Knutsen, 2012, p. 172).

The data processing needs to be analyzed following a hermeneutical and dialectical analysis (Guba

& Lincoln, 1989, p. 149). This implies the need for considering that “prior understanding and prejudices shape the interpretative process” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008, p. 16) in the evaluation of data, and the contrast of social constructions through “iteration, analysis, critique, reiteration, reanalysis” (Schwandt, 1998, p. 243) to produce findings. Comparisons are used to highlight particular against general to understand how the biases within the context affect the subjective understanding of the world (Bendix, 1980, p. 15).

This master thesis is structured in four chapters, in addition to the introduction and the conclusion.

The following chapter sets up a theoretical framework, in which the theory of social constructivism is studied to develop a conceptual outline for the analysis of the phenomenon of environmental displacement. Particularly, the chapter aims to analyze how perceived forcefulness affects the likeliness for (a group) of individuals to obtain protection. This chapter aims to demonstrate that, within social constructivism, the discourse has the potential to legitimize the protection of environmentally displaced persons. The social constructivist approach studies the way the discourse has the potential to establish knowledge and normative realities (Price, 1995). Thus, the chapter seeks to illustrate the ways knowledge and social reality interact with each other, and how this relates to the interaction between the actors, considering their identity, actors’ behavior, and the creation of norms (Griffiths et al., 2008, p. 52).

The third chapter then focuses on the case study of two affected states in Oceania whose nationals are seeking international protection: The Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu. The different characteristics of the insular states in Oceania are pointed out to be able to identify shared traits amongst the affected persons. The two states have been selected as states where the non-immediate effects of environmental degradation are becoming more evident and threatening for the livelihood of the inhabitants of the island, and they are triggering the displacement of the population (Williams, 2008; McNamara & Gibson, 2009). This chapter aims to highlight the link between displacements and environmental degradation, and how the link suggests forcefulness in the displacement. Which could help consolidate the identity of environmentally displaced persons as a vulnerable social group that is entitled to protection. As part of the social constructivist discourse,



the consolidation of the shared identity of the environmentally displaced persons as forced migrants has the potential to legitimize their right to receive protection (Barker, 2001; McNamara & Gibson, 2009).

The fourth chapter analyzes the suitability of the different existing legal regimes that grant international protection to various categories of forced migrants, and that could be modified to include environmentally displaced persons. First, each regime will be analyzed to determine who is covered by its protection (i.e., in terms of a regime’s personal scope of application), and what kind of protection is granted. Secondly, each regime will be analyzed from a normative perspective – i.e., to determine if the environmentally displaced persons could be included within the scope of application and what would be the legal procedure to modify the regime’s international norms in a way to include those individuals. Finally, each regime will be analyzed to test the adequacy of the measures they grant to the needs of the environmentally displaced persons. The objective of this chapter is to analyze the implications that emanate from each legal categorization, to find the most suitable legal category for the protection of the environmentally displaced persons taking into consideration possible attitudes of states towards each categorization and the likeliness of implementation of the proposed solutions.

The fifth chapter deals with the failure to find a viable solution within the existing international legal system to grant protection to environmentally displaced persons. This chapter aims to explore the possibility to implement sui generis policies proposed by academics and legislators to cover the void in the legal protection of environmentally displaced persons. It studies several alternatives to create sui generis policies for the affected persons. First, it analyzes characteristics that make the environmentally displaced persons different from other categories of forced migrants. Second, it defines a possible scope of protection for this sui generis category, and the necessary mechanisms to prevent further environmental displacements. Lastly, it focuses on two possible different approaches (holistic and bilateral) to create a sui generis category and an accompanying regime for their protection. The goal of this chapter is to seek a possible viable alternative to protect environmentally displaced persons.




The theoretical foundation of this study is based on the social constructivist analysis of how the perception of actors can be altered through the common interpretation of reality, established by shared knowledge and normative realities (Price, 1995). This chapter will analyze the core ideas of the social constructivist arguments, placing a particular emphasis on aspects, such as norms and identity, and then it will relate those concepts to the topic of environmental displacement (Griffiths et al., 2008, p. 52). The goal of this chapter is to examine how social constructivism, through a legitimizing discourse, provides a framework for the construction of a regime to protect environmentally displaced persons. Socially constructed discourses have the potential to

“legitimate alternative values, norms, and lifestyles and validate the perspectives and identities of those oppressed by particular relations and structures of power” (Stammers, 1999, p. 989).8 Particularly, it seeks to examine the potentials of a socially constructed discourse to legitimize the position of environmentally displaced persons as forced migrants.

This chapter is structured into two parts. The first part analyzes how social constructivism provides a framework that helps in the understanding of how to create and modify knowledge and construct reality, particularly actors’ role in constructing the categorization of environmentally displaced persons as forced migrants. The second part analyzes the perception of environmental displacements through two different discourses (i.e., the identity-based and normative discourse) to identify if any of those discourses have the potential to legitimize protection of the affected persons.

2.1 Theoretical framework: actors’ role in shaping a social reality

Social constructivism is defined as the view in which the “material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction and depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of

8 Power in the international community also has a key role in determining and defining security interests. In Adler’s (1997, p. 336) words: “Power, in short, means, not only the resources required to impose one’s own will to others but also the authority to determine the shared meanings that constitute the identities, interests and practices of states, as well as the conditions they confer, defer or deny access to ‘goods and benefits”.



the material world” (Adler, 1997, p. 322). Constructivism emphasizes the relationship of the international society and non-material facts, “such as norms, ideas, knowledge, and culture”

(Finnemore & Sikkink, 2001, p. 393). In other words, Ruggie (1998, p. 856) describes it as “human consciousness and its role in international life”, pointing out the role of “collectively held or intersubjective ideas and understanding on social life” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 2001, p. 393).

Onuf (1989) introduced the constructivist theory to international relations in the ‘World of our Making’, by affirming that the behavior of states simulates the conduct of individuals in a way that the reality is created through interaction. International relations are based on social facts that are conceived through the common interpretation of reality (Searle, 1995, pp. 48–51; Adler, 1997).

Wendt (1994, p. 385) has established the core characteristics of the social constructivist theory applied to international relations: “states are the principal units of analysis for international political theory; the key structures in the state system are intersubjective rather than material; and state identities and interests are in important part constructed by these social structures, rather than given exogenously to the system by human nature or domestic politics”.

International relations serve as a base for constructing the identities and interests of actors, and they are a foundation that might be used to regulate their behavior. This indicates that the social construction of the world politics is created “through a process of interaction between agents (individuals, states, non-state actors)” (Checkel, 2008, p. 72), which leads to a process of a mutual constitution (Finnemore, 1996; Adler, 2002).9 Likewise, categories are not unalterable components of reality but are rather created by social interaction (Saussure, 1916, p. 110; McGregor, 2004, p.

150; Fierke, 2015, p. 56). Comprehending the social creation of these categories is essential to understand the cultural and political meaning of any categorization of environmentally displaced persons. Categorizing groups of people “generate/s/ their own altered realities, setting the terms of debates, changing political landscapes and shifting power relationships between people, institutions and non-human entities” (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 476).

There are two essential bases in social constructivism from which knowledge and reality are derived. The epistemology of social constructivism is based on the fact that “knowledge is socially

9 For more on the process of interaction between the agents and the structures, see Hopf (1998), Price and Reus-Smith (1998), Wendt (1999), Finnemore and Sikkink (2001).



constructed” (Guzzini, 2000, p. 160), nonetheless it uses a much broader repertoire of epistemological devices that are related to a shared pool of common knowledge (Moses & Knutsen, 2012, pp. 183–187). According to Kuhn (1962, pp. 121–122), the creation of knowledge requires an analysis of the social context in which the paradigm has been produced. The ontological claim of social constructivism focuses on the “construction of social reality” (Guzzini, 2000, p. 160).

Human beings participate in the construction of the world, by molding their reality to their understanding, thus creating a concept of reality that is overlapping and everchanging (Moses &

Knutsen, 2012, pp. 181–183). Searle (1995) calls these socially constructed realities ‘institutional facts’, which base their existence on an intersubjectively shared meaning, and not only on their physical existence.

The ontology and epistemology of social constructivism indicate that knowledge and social reality are mutually constitutive (Guzzini, 2000, pp. 161–163). Knowledge is no longer approached as an objective representation of one universal reality; rather, it is understood as a participative creation of socially shared reality, which is shaped by interests, actions, and social practices (Adler, 1997, p. 323; Guzzini, 2000; Pouliot, 2007, p. 364). This implies that individuals behave as active agents contributing to the interpretation of the constructing reality, rather than accepting a pre-made reality (Adler, 1997; Finnemore & Sikkink, 2001, p. 395; Adler, 2005).

The social construction of reality is made through language, thus giving semiotics a role to shape reality and to (re)produce it (Saussure, 1916). Facts are language-dependent, which indicates that language dynamics can generate a reality “that otherwise would not have been possible to exist”

(Fierke, 2015, p. 56). But there is the need to take into consideration that the meaning of a word is not determined by its content alone, but also by its context or structure (Saussure, 1916, pp. 110–

115). Context is therefore central and must be protected to access meaning. Hence, the reality is not inherent to the international system, but it is socially constructed by all actors who participate and interact within it (Turner, 1988, p. 102; Wendt, 1992, pp. 397, 411; Moses & Knutsen, 2012, p. 184). In particular, the shared knowledge regarding environmental displacements – including their categorization as economic migrants, rather than forceful ones – is socially created through the interactions with other actors and the shared perceptions of the affected persons, therefore it can be altered (Adler, 1997, p. 322; Guzzini, 2000, p. 188).



2.2 Influence of the discourse on the perception of social reality: operationalization of the discourse analysis

Operationalization allows the translation of theoretical claims into causal mechanisms, which are the ways through which an outcome is realized (Wodak & Meyer, 2001; Banta, 2012, p. 379). In the case of this research, it is essential to determine how reality can be created and modified through shared knowledge and social interaction (Searle, 1995, p. 45; Fierke, 2015), to affect the perception of environmentally displaced persons. Discourse analysis is the mechanism used to influence the social construction of reality and to create shared knowledge (Saussure, 1916, pp. 110–118). The discourse shapes semiotics to construct social realities following the views of the speakers.

Choosing an adequate discourse is essential to “legitimate alternative values, norms, and lifestyles and validate the perspectives and identities of those oppressed by particular relations and structures of power” (Stammers, 1999, p. 989).

Thus, using a certain discourse to refer to the environmental displacement has the potential to ascertain the struggles and vulnerability of the affected persons, validate the creation of an identity conveying the social group of environmentally displaced persons, and legitimize the creation of norms and legal regimes to protect the affected persons (Saussure, 1916, p. 117; Stammers, 1999, p. 1002; Fierke, 2015, p. 60). The causal mechanisms studied to potentially grant protection to environmentally displaced persons are two different discourses: 1) identity-based, and 2) normative discourse. This thesis treats the different discourses as independent variables to establish their effectiveness, i.e., to determine which of them has a greater potential to be more efficient in influencing the shift in the actors’ shared knowledge. To be able to identify the most effective discourse, this study analyzes how the different discourses could modify the perception about environmentally displaced persons, and the implications that using each discourse could have for the affected persons.

The reason for highlighting these specific perspectives is due to their importance in identifying and potentially modifying the behavior of actors. First, identity serves as a basis for the behavior and interest of actors (Meyer et al., 1997, p. 173; Hopf, 1998, p. 175), thus, a change in the identity- based discourse can modify the behavior of actors (Foucault, 1997). Second, norms guide the conduct of states (Price & Reus-Smit, 1998, p. 259), hence a change in the norm-based discourse regarding the environmental displacements can modify the behavior of the actors. Consequently,



to understand the actors’ conduct, there is a need to explore both angles of the social construction of reality and knowledge and how those influence the behavior of actors.

2.2.1 Identity-based discourse: the role of identity in international relations

Identities are constructed and obtain meaning through social interactions (Hopf, 1998, p. 177; Price

& Reus-Smit, 1998, pp. 257–259), therefore, the identity-based discourse intends to affect the actors’ shared perception(s) and knowledge of the identity of the environmentally displaced persons. Configuring the identity of the affected persons as a vulnerable group would help modify the behavior of the actors into granting them protection. The reason some social groups are protected by legal rights is that social constructions have shaped their identity in a legitimizing way, based on history, norms, and projections of the suffering inflicted upon them (Habermas, 1992; Foucault, 1997; Rawls, 1999; McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Anstee, 2012). Not only does identity construct a discourse around legitimization and protection, but it also shapes the way actors are perceived in the international community (Wendt, 1992; Hopf, 1998, p. 173; Weldes, 1999, p.

59). Environmentally displaced persons are faced with the grave consequences of environmental degradation, which cause disturbances in their livelihood that can force them to displace (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 479). Nonetheless, the discourse around their socially constructed identity does not acknowledge their vulnerable situation and, thus, the affected persons are not identified as forced migrants (Anstee, 2012).

Identities are not given, rather they are sustained or transformed in interaction (Wendt, 1992, 1999;

Hopf, 2002, p. 370). Connolly (1991, p. 64) has described identity as “a series of socially understood and recognized differences”. This implies a distinction between the concepts of ‘self’

and ‘other’, and how this differentiation can define behavior (Bucher & Jasper, 2016). Actors must create their identities, according to both their perception of themselves and their relationships with other actors and their interactions (Griffiths et al., 2008, pp. 52–55; Bartelson, 2009, p. 171).

Various factors are influential in the formation of identities, such as “geopolitical context of international relations and diplomacy, in which different institutions drive certain agendas and seek to gain particular advantages” (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 476), historical events, the language used in the debate to refer to them, the media portrayal, and policy debates (Rawls, 1999;

McGregor, 2004, p. 148; Boykoff, 2008).



As a result of these interactions, affinity, and interdependence with other actors, and as a measure to protect common interests, a shared social identity can emerge. The social identity of a group is

“that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the emotional significance attached to that membership”

(Tajfel, 1974, p. 69). In other words, the social identity is a “positive identification with the welfare of another, such that the other is seen as a cognitive extension of the self, rather than independent”

(Wendt, 1994, p. 386), formed by an “instrumental or situational interdependence between the self and the other” (Keohane, 1984, p. 122).10 Wendt (1999, pp. 21, 231) sees identity as the basis of interest formation and has defined it as “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self” (Wendt, 1992, p. 397). Thus, identities are relevant because they provide a predictable behavior that sets the basis for shared knowledge and interests amongst other actors, which facilitates mutual interactions.

Identities of actors are based on a series of shared interests and behaviors that are shaped by the interactions with other actors, and the cultural-institutional context, as well as constantly changing normative institutional structures (Adler, 1997; Risse, 2000, pp. 7–8). Consequently, actors will mold future behavior following the expectations set by the assumed identity (Katzenstein et al., 1996; Griffiths et al., 2008, p. 52) and the normative context (Walling, 2013), thereby emphasizing

“the role of identity in the constitution of interests and action” (Price & Reus-Smit, 1998, p. 259).

The behavior of these actors will “depend largely on the shared ideas in which they are embedded”

(Wendt, 1999, p. 193), emphasizing the role of culture, norms, and values as a justification for the formation of actors’ interests.

The consolidation of an identity-based discourse based on the identity of the environmentally displaced persons as forced migrants would allow a shift in the perception of the affected persons.

10 The common identity that comes with the membership in a social group is exogenous to the identity of actors, which means that actors do not lose their individual identity by forming part of a social group (Wendt, 1994, p. 385), rather the actors can be part of multiple social groups and have various (also multiple) identities and those identities may be exposed and changed situationally (i.e. depending on different situations). A social group or social category is defined as an aggregation of individuals who share common features and that influence people’s conception of themselves (Forsyth, 2009, pp. 13–16). This implies that the identity of environmentally displaced persons would not fade into one unified identity of forced migrants that is common to all the actors belonging to the social group; rather, the individual identity of the affected persons would remain the same – i.e., as Tuvaluans or I-Kiribati, as Pacific islanders, amongst others (Keohane, 1984; Wendt, 1994). One of these identities can be more prominent in certain circumstances, for example, for cultural issues, they may identify as Tuvaluans, but when their socio-economic situation is being addressed, they may self-identify as environmentally displaced (Tuvaluans).



The link between the environmental degradation and the impossibility of continuing their livelihood would reveal the forcefulness of the displacement, thus reinforcing the vulnerable situation of the environmentally displaced persons. The shared identity as forced migrants would permit other international players to identify and understand the interests and behavior of the environmentally displaced persons, thus recognizing and comprehending better the needs of this social group (Katzenstein et al., 1996; Weldes, 1999, p. 10). Consequently, recognizing the environmentally displaced as a social group in a vulnerable position would ease the debate as to the most appropriate ways of addressing the needs and expectations of the affected persons.

However, the process of changing the shared perception of the identity of environmentally displaced persons is neither immediate nor unilateral (Fierke, 2015, p. 60). Changing the discourse about the identity of the environmentally displaced persons would require time and effort, limiting the efficiency of the identity-based discourse in the short term (Yus, 2015, p. 499). To reach a consensus amongst the actors, firstly, the environmentally displaced persons would need to agree on their categorization and identify themselves as a social group (Tajfel, 1974), then, the other actors would need to modify their shared knowledge and the perception/understanding about the common reality, and finally, the actors would need to enact norms to protect the environmentally displaced persons (Katzenstein et al., 1996). However, there is no consensus amongst the affected persons on the preferred approach – either as resilient and adaptive or as vulnerable and victims of climate change and environmental degradation (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 481; Adger et al., 2018) –, which hinders formation of shared knowledge.

This implies that an identity-based discourse, while it could potentially modify the perception of environmentally displaced persons leading to the creation of a regime of protection, would not be very efficient at this stage. Nevertheless, identity – as a core concept that serves as a basis for actors to interpret the world and relate with each other (Adler, 1997, p. 322) – should not be omitted in the granting of protection to the environmentally displaced persons, as the common understanding of the affected persons as forced migrants, is fundamental to legitimize their vulnerability and their entitlement to receive protection.



2.2.2 The normative discourse: the role of norms in addressing the behavior of the actors

The normative discourse seeks to legitimize the protection of environmentally displaced persons, by using norms to guide the conduct of the actors and to influence their shared interests, common values, and behavior towards achieving a desirable outcome (Koskenniemi, 2005, p. 50), which is, in this case, protecting the vulnerable groups and persons belonging to them. International law is created by the development of some norms and values shared by actors, which is the reason why a normative framing is unavoidable (Price & Reus-Smit, 1998; Walling, 2013). Normative influences are the reason behind international protection and support towards some specific social groups, such as refugees, victims of terrorism, and war prisoners, amongst others. The norms, values, and morals that lead to the international protection of certain communities and individuals have been socially constructed, rather than arbitrary given. However, following the same discourse, environmentally displaced persons have not been perceived as entitled to protection, despite the environmental deterioration which impedes their livelihood, puts them in a vulnerable position, and forces their displacement.

The construction of the normative structures to protect vulnerable social groups is based on the shared values and interests of actors (Foucault, 1997; Rawls, 1999). Therefore, the genealogical construction and the socialization of norms are essential for the creation of the normative influences that can lead to international recognition and protection of environmentally displaced persons (Price, 1995). These social constructions are shaped through interaction between these constructive dynamics and shared knowledge, historical representation, and discourses, amongst other factors (Habermas, 1992; Rawls, 1999; Kumm, 2004).

Norms are inter-subjective beliefs that are reproduced through social practice (Björkdahl, 2002), which exert regulative functions as well as constitutive impacts upon state behavior and identity (Finnemore, 1996; Katzenstein et al., 1996). This implies that the effects of international norms both constrain societal actors and constitute identities and interests of domestic actors (Checkel, 1997), therefore they can alter and create interests (Barnett & Finnemore, 2004). Katzenstein (1996, p. 6) has defined norms as “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity”, implying that the identity of actors affects expectations about compliance with social norms that are associated with that particular identity.



There are two points of view that help us understand the role of normative behavior in the development of international law: the subjective and the normative perspective (Koskenniemi, 2005). The subjective outlook establishes a direct relation between norms and the normal conduct of the state (Raymond, 1997, p. 128). This implies that norms “exists in a given social setting to the extent that individuals usually act in a certain way” (Axelrod, 1986, p. 1097), thus a behavior can only be considered a norm to the extent the state “engages in such practices” (Thomson, 1993, p. 81). International law thus cannot be constructed without mirroring states’ behavior. In other words, it intends to unify the law and state behavior/practice (Koskenniemi, 2005, pp. 17–24). The normative approach uses the law as a pursuit of social goals. In Bull’s (1977, pp. 28–29) view,

“rules are general imperative principles which require or authorize prescribed classes of persons or groups to behave in prescribed ways”. Thus, the law should set some collective expectations to influence the behavior of actors in terms of what ought to be done and the collective expectations about appropriate behavior (Raymond, 1997, p. 128) – i.e., what is morally correct (Koskenniemi, 2005, pp. 58–60). When all actors fulfill the collective expectations, an ideal environment is created for cooperation and interaction among them (Chinkin, 2000, p. 27).

Koskenniemi (2005, pp. 38, 51, 590) perceives the different points of view on norms as a dichotomy that can only be solved through the balance between the normative and the subjective approach. Because the law is unable to achieve its purpose unless it has some autonomy from state practice, but at the same time, it is not able to achieve its function either if it is entirely tied down to such practice (Raymond, 1997, p. 130). This implies that norms invoke appropriate standards of behavior to which states conform – not because they perceive it as maximization of utility, but because they understand it as appropriate following their values. They thus adhere to the logic of appropriateness:11 the interests and behaviors are overruled in favor of the constitutive power of norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, pp. 912–913).

Viewing environmental displacements through a normative angle would require the creation of a normative structure that would trigger a modification of the social values, interests, shared

11 March and Olsen (1995) describe the logic of appropriateness as a perspective according to which state behavior is driven by rules of exemplary behavior. “Rules are followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected, and legitimate. Actors seek to fulfill the obligations encapsulated in a role, an identity, a membership in a political community or group, and the ethos, practices, and expectations of its institutions. Embedded in a social collectivity, they do what they see as appropriate for themselves in a specific type of situation” (March & Olsen, 2009, p. 478).



knowledge, and behavior of the actors (Björkdahl, 2002). The normative approach of the topic would influence the actors to act in the pursuit of social goals and fulfill collective expectations, which would ultimately lead to a modification in the perception of environmentally displaced persons (Raymond, 1997; Thornton et al., 2018). The norms create an expectation and obligation to conform, that would shift the behavior of the actors, regardless if they have enforcement mechanisms or not, as the norms would assume power of their own given the logic of appropriateness (Shannon, 2000, pp. 311–312). Hence, the normative discourse presents itself as an efficient mechanism to modify the socially constructed reality and the shared knowledge regarding environmentally displaced persons, opening the possibility to grant protection to the affected persons. Furthermore, this thesis uses the normative discourse to explore the possibilities for modifying the behavior of actors to grant protection to environmentally displaced persons.



3 THE CASE STUDY: ENVIRONMENTALLY DISPLACED PERSONS IN OCEANIA As part of the social constructivist discourse, the normative framing can induce the protection of environmentally displaced persons by establishing norms that endorse the desirable conduct of the actors, with a collective expectation to conform (Raymond, 1997; Shannon, 2000). However, the normative discourse requires consolidation of the shared identity of the environmentally displaced persons as forced migrants to legitimize their protection (Anstee, 2012). This chapter aims to elucidate the shared characteristics of the environmentally displaced persons in the Pacific region, to reinforce their vulnerable position as forced migrants, and to legitimize their need to receive protection.

This chapter is structured in two parts. The first part focuses on two case studies: the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu – two small island states affected by different natural disasters caused by environmental degradation, which have forced their nationals to displace internally and internationally. The first part seeks to highlight the characteristics of the affected persons within those states, their patterns of displacement, as well as their responses towards this phenomenon, to identify shared traits amongst the affected persons that can help determine common interests, behavior, and needs. The second part then analyzes the common characteristics of both states, and it seeks to identify possible traits that could legitimize granting protection to environmentally displaced persons. The goal of the second part of this chapter is to emphasize their disadvantageous position due to the forcefulness of their displacement. This is important for consolidating a common understanding of the affected persons as forced migrants, and for legitimizing their need for protection (Barker, 2001; McNamara & Gibson, 2009).

3.1 The impact of environmental degradation on small island states

The choice to study the states of the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu is not arbitrary, the countries have been chosen due to the particularities of the Pacific region (Locke, 2009; DeJesus, 2018;

Ayeb-Karlsson & Uy, 2021).12 The case of Oceania, due to its singular territorial layout of small

12 While this study focuses on the vulnerability of the small island states in the Pacific Ocean, not all island states in the region are equally sensitive to environmental degradation. Multiple states are located on more elevated islands that have large reserves of potable water. However, despite the lesser impact in some of the states in the region, such as



island states, remains partially unaffected by violent conflicts for the control of natural resources (McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Hunt, 2013; Heslin et al., 2019).13 Therefore, making it one of the few regions where it is more apparent that the displacements are prompted by environmental degradation rather than by violence, economic, or social factors (Podesta, 2019, p. 2; Guadagno, 2021). This thesis covers the studies of the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu, where non-immediate effects of environmental degradation, such as the salinization of water, erosion of coastlines, and aridification of the land, jeopardize the natural resources and the habitability in the islands, thus triggering displacements (McNamara & Gibson, 2009; Barnett, 2017; Zambrano et al., 2019).

3.1.1 The Republic of Kiribati

The Republic of Kiribati is a small island state situated on the Equator and the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, with a total area of 811 km2 (World Health Organization (WHO), 2020;

World Bank, 2020). It consists of 32 atolls,14 and one coral island divided between three island groupings:15 the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, and the Line Islands.16 The Republic of Kiribati is experiencing serious effects of environmental degradation that have not only environmental consequences but also social and humanitarian implications. Kiribati’s concern with environmental degradation has placed addressing climate change as the principal topic of its national and international policy (Government of Kiribati, 2005, 2015, 2018, 2019). The islands

Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, a potential impact on the environment commonly occurs throughout all states in the region (Edwards, 1999; Barnett & Adger, 2003; McNamara & Gibson, 2009).

13 The displacements triggered by environmental reasons affect different countries in the world (Anzellini et al., 2020).

In some cases, the lack of resources as a consequence of damages in the environment can create violent conflicts and war, economic recession, inflation and volatile prices, and inequality and poverty (Pettinger, 2019).

14 An atoll is a ring-shaped coral island that surrounds and separates partially or completely a body of seawater. Usually, atolls are located on the rim of an extinct volcano or a seamount that is partially submerged allowing corals to grow and form reefs (Migon, 2010, pp. 350–351).

15 See Appendix II, Table 1 for a political map of the Republic of Kiribati, Table 2 for a topographic map of the elevation of the island of Tarawa, and Table 3 for a topographic map of the island of Kiritimati.

16 The coral composition of the islands is essential to understand the effect of environmental displacements in the island states of Oceania. The corals, which are the main components of the atolls and reef islands, are marine living invertebrates of the Anthozoa family (Hughes et al., 2020). Because they are living creatures, they can respond to the changes in the sea level and dynamically adapt to their environment (Webb & Kench, 2010; Graham et al., 2011;

Morais et al., 2020). Some islands in Kiribati and Tuvalu have increased their area to adapt to the human and environmental changes in the past decade, however, the rise of sea level is increasing faster than the coral growth rate.

Another issue connected to the environmental degradation that affects the corals is the ocean acidification and increase in ocean temperatures, which damages and destroys the coral polyps, hindering their adaptative response and even killing the corals (Kench et al., 2018).



that form the Republic of Kiribati have an average altitude of fewer than two meters above sea level and a width smaller than 1,000 meters.

Due to these characteristics, the Republic of Kiribati is susceptible to suffer from “sea-level rise, leading to coastal erosion, salinization of potable water supplies and degradation of agricultural land” (Locke, 2009, p. 176). The inevitable rise of the sea level due to global warming and climate change will cause further salinization of the soil until the islands are mostly submerged (Adger et al., 2018; Government of Kiribati, 2019; WHO, 2020). In the 1990s, two small islets disappeared underwater, raising the concern about the impact of environmental deterioration (World Bank, 2020). This makes the state amongst the top ten most vulnerable countries to environmental degradation in the world (Ayers & Huq, 2007, p. 2; Webb & Kench, 2010; Webber, 2013; World Bank, 2020).

The population of the Republic of Kiribati is around 119,200 people, but due to the uneven development of the islands the population is unequally distributed, and around 90 % of the population lives on the Gilbert Islands (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The average population density is 147 people/km2, but this varies widely from 13 people/km2 in rural, non-urbanized, underdeveloped outer islands such as Kiritimati to nearly 11,270 people/km2 in the small island of Betio, which is located near the island of South Tarawa (World Bank, 2020). The population in South Tarawa, the capital and the urban center of the country, is 40,500 people, with a population density of 2,518 people/km2. South Tarawa, with less than 16 km2 of land, is thus the residence of more than one-third of the population of the state (WHO, 2020; World Bank, 2020).

The uneven development occurred due to significant internal migration from outer islands towards the capital. The urban migration was caused by a combination of economic and environmental factors, which further exacerbated the environmental problems (Brotoisworo, 2010; Government of Kiribati, 2015; Barnett & McMichael, 2018). The redistribution of the population, and the short period in which the internal migrations have occurred, have burdened the environment by creating an imbalance between the available resources and the population, leading to strained local capacities that cannot meet the needs of the population (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The internal migration to urbanized areas is generally perceived by legislators, as well as by most of the affected persons in terms of economic migration, rather than in terms of environmental displacements (Skeldon, 2018). However, there is an evident correlation between the



environmental impact and the displacements within the islands, as the outer islands are more affected by water scarcity and droughts, coastal erosion, storm surges, and coral reef depletion (McLeman & Hunter, 2009; Heslin et al., 2019; WHO, 2020).

The unsustainable growth of the population in the main cities has led to “poor sanitary conditions associated with inadequate sewerage and lack of garbage disposal systems, and a stress on local health facilities” (Locke, 2009, p. 174). This has worsened the living conditions of the islanders, which has contributed to the highest human poverty index in the Pacific Islands (World Bank, 2020). The increase of the population in the capital also has an impact on natural resources, including scarcity of land, difficult agricultural conditions, scant food production, and insufficient potable water sources and filtration systems (Locke, 2009; Government of Kiribati, 2015, 2019).

The percentage of arable land on the island is 2.47 %, of which less than 40 % is dedicated to planting crops permanently, making 8.3 km2 of permanent land used for crop production in the whole state (World Bank, 2020). This has risen the rates of malnutrition amongst the population due to iron, vitamin A and protein deficiency, directly caused by the lack of available resources to feed the population (Moseley et al., 2013, p. 191; Hayashi et al., 2019). Consequently, poor nutrition has affected the life expectancy of the inhabitants of Kiribati, especially those in South Tarawa (Locke, 2009; WHO, 2020). The lifespan of the I-Kiribati17 is on average around 69 years, which is around ten years shorter than that of the other Pacific islands (World Bank, 2020).

The greatest climate change-induced threat to the population of the Republic of Kiribati is the potable water scarcity and waterborne diseases (Hunt, 2013, p. 147).18 The increase in the ocean temperature causes a rise in sea levels, which breaches the porous underground water table that holds most of the potable water available on the island (Government of Kiribati, 2019). The breach of saline water into the freshwater increases the salinity of the aquifers, thus polluting it and making it unapt for human consumption. Consequently, the main water resources located in the islands have become unusable, pushing people to find new sources of fresh water, which can lead to displacements (Thomas, 2003, pp. 8, 25; Government of Kiribati, 2019; Guadagno, 2021). This problem has led to huge investments in freshwater infrastructure in an attempt to cover the needs

17 I-Kiribati is the demonym to refer to the nationals of the Republic of Kiribati.

18 Waterborne diseases are caused by contaminated water, which has been in contact with pathogenic micro-organisms (Pons et al., 2015).



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