The Sunday Edition

People fleeing climate change should have refugee status, says Tongan MP

"When you wake up and the tide is coming into your living room, then that's no joke anymore."
Popua Village, a suburb in the outskirts of Tonga's capital, is built in a flood prone area. (ADB/Luis Enrique Ascui)
Listen12:58

Tongan Member of Parliament Lord Fusitu'a says the South Pacific islands are experiencing more cyclones, coastal erosion and higher sea levels due to climate change.

Lord Fusitu'a serves as Lord Member of Parliament for the Niuas in the Legislative Assembly of Tonga. (Twitter)

Many residents are migrating inland or leaving entirely to find new homes in other countries.

But are they considered considered refugees?

Not under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which was originally created for European refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Lord Fusitu'a argues this convention needs to be updated to include refugees displaced by climate change. He spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Nahlah Ayed about why.

The transcript below is an excerpt that has been edited for brevity. To hear the full conversation with Lord Fusitu'a, click 'listen' at the top of the page.

Nahlah Ayed: Why do you think people displaced by climate change should be considered refugees under the UN convention?

Lord Fusitu'a: I think they should be so, because ultimately they suffer similar consequences to refugees who are currently covered under the convention: refugees who are covered by conflict, refugees who are covered by religious [or] political persecution.

We have sat here for decades while you have ruined the stratosphere.- Lord  Fusitu'a

The ultimate result is that you are unable to live a life of any decent standard of living within your own country, and you should therefore qualify for the provisions which are granted to these conflicts and political persecution refugees.

[Climate change] is coming. It is already here and it is impacting literally thousands of people. The most impacted nations are what we call the small island developing states, which are basically ourselves and the Caribbean.

The plight they suffer is from a phenomena which is already in place, unstoppable, and we are in damage control.

NA: How many people would you say in your kingdom are directly in the line of fire, so to speak, when it comes to climate change?

LF: The entire country.

We just had a major tropical cyclone in February. I think it was 90 per cent of the urban areas, the houses were either damaged or completely levelled, but statistically the entire country was the impacted. There were no places that were left undamaged.

This image made from a video, shows Parliament House damaged by Cyclone Gita in Nuku'alofa, Tonga Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. Tonga began cleaning up Tuesday after a cyclone hit overnight, while some people in the nearby Pacific nation of Fiji began preparing for the storm to hit them. (TVNZ via AP) (TVNZ via AP)

NA: When people have to leave their homes, are there any legal rights that they have because they've been displaced by climate change?

LF: In international law, none whatsoever. And the very first day, we had 4,500 to 6,500 people immediately homeless in a country that's slightly less than 100,000 people.

Five per cent of our population was homeless overnight and had to live in shelters without food, without water ... So the conversation around climate change is most definitely a tangible one. 

When you wake up and the tide is coming into your living room, then that's no joke anymore.-  Lord  Fusitu'a

NA: I understand that making a home by the sea is an important part of the identity of the Tongan people. How do people cope with maybe having to give that up?

LF: I think having a home by the sea or having no home at all is a no-brainer. So you either have a home by the sea, which you have to leave anyway because of coastal erosion … or getting refugee status abroad and being able to build in your life amongst your relatives, who you are comfortable with, and with great opportunities in a developed nation and given the rights of a formally recognized refugee.

NA: How much does the question of blame come up when you talk to people in your part of the world? Is that also an argument for people to act?

LF: It's unavoidable, because when I sit in in New York at the UN General Assembly, I'm surrounded by the carbon emitters. So, I'm surrounded by the people who caused the problem and those of us few victims who [are] sitting there who cause no emissions whatsoever but suffer the brunt the most.

So it is definitely part of the conversation when we discuss these things. Although [it's] a little bit uncomfortable and perhaps a bit forward for them to hear, it must be mentioned that you who are still insisting on not having the political will or a refusal to acknowledge the science are the emitters that have caused this problem and yet your populations do not suffer the consequences.

We have sat here for decades while you have ruined the stratosphere — caused global warming, caused global climate change and now our people literally have to relocate to other countries.

When you wake up and the tide is coming into your living room, then that's no joke anymore.

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full conversation.

This is part one of a two-part series about the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Click here for part two with Alexander Betts, professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford.