Colitha Kasuana’s story: I am a climate refugee

Climate change is forcing millions to leave their homes, yet climate refugees do not have the same rights as other refugees fleeing war and persecution. 

Read Colitha Kasuana’s story and how Friends of the Earth is campaigning for equal status for climate refugees. 

What’s it like to be driven from your home by something that’s out of your control? Colitha Kasuana knows the feeling.

In 2013 Colitha, her husband and their 4 children left their tiny island home of Piul, part of Papua New Guinea in South East Asia. She says she was forced to move to Tinputz on the nearby mainland – not by war or persecution, but by the rising sea levels that threatened her home.

A growing humanitarian crisis

“The little piece of land where my family were growing their bananas was gone, and I was sharing the coconut trees with my other 2 sisters who also have children,” says Colitha.

With less food to go round, she had to act.

“The future of my children depended on me and my husband, so we made that hard decision to leave home.”

Colitha’s story, and that of that of the 2,500 people who once lived on this group of coral atolls known as the Carteret Islands, is part of a growing humanitarian crisis – one that’s only set to get worse.

In 2016, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, a low-lying island state in the Pacific, claimed 62,000 people every day were being displaced by the impacts of climate change. Droughts, floods and, in Colitha’s case, the encroaching tide, are taking their toll.

Ursula and her house on Han Islet
Ursula and her house on Han Islet.

Millions are fleeing due to rising temperatures

The International Organisation on Migration, an expert body of the UN, calculates that by 2050 up to 200 million people could be forced to leave their homes because of rising global temperatures.

The migration is happening around the globe. In 2016, the New York Times reported on what they call the United States’ first climate refugees, Native American people who have had to move away from their ancestral Louisiana home on the Isle de Jean Charles.

In this case, as in the case of the Carteret Islanders, the communities were resettled. But thousands of others, perhaps millions, do not have this option.

How many of those risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa have been displaced by the regular droughts and desertification in the Sahel?

In 2014, the World Bank reported that climate change is going to lead to far more heat-waves and drought, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, exacerbating crop failure, food and water shortages, conflict and dislocation of people.

Colitha is luckier than some. She now has a hectare of land to grow food and cash crops such as cocoa and coconuts.

“We send our surplus food to the island to our remaining families and sell the rest for a little family income.”

But most can’t claim such a happy ending.

Climate refugees' rights not protected

The UN Refugee Convention does not cover people displaced by environmental degradation or climate-related disasters, international human rights standards relating to internally displaced people do not address the situation of climate refugees, and more recent initiatives to address the problem are non-binding.

Ursula Rakova is head of Tulele Peisa, the local organisation supporting the relocation of the Carteret Islanders.

The international community, she says, needs to properly fund the resettlement of people forced to move because of climate change, enough so they are genuinely able to rebuild their lives and “are not paying the price of their movement”.

This should also account for the culture many communities leave behind.

“They have rights, just like everybody forced to flee their homes in fear of war, conflict or persecution.”

Right now there is no international protection or support for climate refugees. Please support our campaign to change this.

Demand protection for climate refugees

First published 9 December 2016

Papa New Guinea