As warming seas climb their shores, Marshall Islanders face becoming climate refugees before the international community can decide what rights, if any, that status confers.
Sandbags surround the Majuro airstrip while hurriedly-built bridges span flooded sections of road, and many Marshall Islanders have built seawalls to protect their homes on this remote nation in the Pacific Ocean.
The Marshall Islands are made up of five main islands and 29 coral atolls spread across three-quarters of a million miles of ocean, but they amount to just 70 square miles of actual land. And even that is now at the mercy of the seas, which are rising thanks to climate change.
The United Nations has predicted sea levels will rise by up to three feet by 2100 if global carbon emissions continue unchecked, and a recent paper published in the journal Nature said this estimate should be doubled to more than six feet because of ice melt in Antarctica.
The Marshall Islanders seem destined to become climate refugees as the whole country threatens to disappear below sea level by the end of the century. And the seas are rising faster than international law can adapt. There is no international recognition of people displaced by climate change as refugees, leaving them without legal protection or rights.
The average elevation in the Marshall Islands is six feet, with many areas just above sea level. In recent years the “king tides” – two especially high tides that come each year at around the same time – have swept through the streets of the capital, Majuro. King tides never used to swamp the atoll; now they do.
Entire rows of damaged and abandoned homes can be seen in some areas of the atoll. About 170 miles southwest, Kili island has been flooded so regularly that its residents are thinking about leaving for good.
“If we lose our islands, we would become aimless refugees,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and climate activist who lives in Majuro. “We could be the first to leave our entire country, our entire home.”
Two years ago, Jetnil-Kijiner was invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, where she called on world leaders to take action to save her island nation. She read one of her poems that describes the threat that faces the Marshallese people.
“Tell them we are a proud people toasted dark brown as the carved ribs of a tree stump.
Tell them we are descendants of the finest navigators in the world.
Tell them about the water, how we have seen it rising.
Tell them what it’s like to see the entire ocean level with the land.”
If displaced because of rising seas, the Marshall Islanders – like anyone put in this position by climate change or natural disaster – would find themselves in legal limbo. They would not qualify as refugees, so would not receive the same international protection, even though they were forced to leave their homes. That’s because “climate refugee” is not a term recognized under international law.
Alex Randall from Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), the Oxford, UK-based climate NGO, says the term is widely used but holds no legal currency: “The phrase ‘climate refugees’ isn’t used much within law or research any more, for the very same reason that such people don’t have similar rights to other kinds of refugees.”
Climate refugees are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
That is because “natural disasters or environmental degradation do not constitute a form of persecution as per the Convention criteria (fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion),” according to a 2014 IOM report.
The IOM and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have called for international human-rights law to be used to cover the legal gaps threatening people displaced by climate change. That is because its framework covers respect for the rights of all individuals at all times, including protection from arbitrary loss of life.
“The key thing is creating systems that protect all migrants and displaced people,” said Randall.
One effort in this direction has come from Switzerland and Norway through a state-led process known as the Nansen Initiative. Conceived to fill the legal gap in cross-border migration due to climate change and disasters, its agenda was endorsed by some 110 countries last year.
But the Nansen Initiative may not help those displaced from countries that cease to exist altogether.
“I think people understand that climate change will cause migration, but I don’t think they really get what that means for the Marshall Islands,” Jetnil-Kijiner said. “It would mean changes in our status in the international realm.”
If the islands were swamped by rising seas, the country would likely lose its sovereignty, making its people stateless under international law.
The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons sets out a minimum standard of treatment for them, including providing travel documents and identity papers. It does not, however, compel any state to accept a stateless person for entry or residence, according to the UNHCR.
Thousands of people have already left the islands for a variety of reasons, with many settling in diaspora communities in Hawaii, California and Oregon. In Springdale, Arkansas – another hot spot for Marshallese migration – traffic signs are written in the Marshallese language.
Several thousand islanders live in the town. One of them, a retired pastor from Majuro who moved there with several members of his family, said Marshallese residents remain close-knit even after leaving the islands.
But some aspects of the culture are incompatible with U.S. customs and norms, including the common practice of family members and relatives living together and speaking Marshallese as a first language.
“We speak Marshallese a lot, but the young ones have to talk in English, too, because of school,” said pastor Charles Heam. “Only the older people speak Marshallese, the younger are not fluent.”
The pastor admits that his family’s new home comes with advantages, like better education and better healthcare, but this does not remove the sense of loss.
“I miss my home island, Majuro,” he admitted.