Europe 1 with AFP // Photo credit: Hector RETAMAL / AFP 18:50 p.m., November 10, 2023

The Australian government announced on Friday that it will gradually offer climate asylum to the citizens of Tuvalu, a small group of Pacific islands that has been eroded by rising sea levels and is threatened with extinction. Australia said it was open to the idea of similar agreements with other neighbouring countries in the Pacific Ocean.

A "foundational" treaty: Canberra announced on Friday that it would gradually offer climate asylum to some 11,000 citizens of Tuvalu, a small group of Pacific islands nibbled away by rising sea levels and threatened with extinction. Two of its nine coral reefs have already been swallowed up, and it's only a matter of time -- less than a century -- before all of its territory becomes uninhabitable, experts say.

"This is the first agreement that specifically tackles climate mobility"

On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Tuvalu counterpart Kausea Natano unveiled the terms of a pact that will allow the citizens of the archipelago to take refuge in Australia to "live, study and work". In order to avoid any damaging "brain drain", the number of entries will initially be limited to 280 per year. Kausea Natano hailed a "glimmer of hope" for her nation, one of the most threatened by the effects of climate change.

Jane McAdam, an expert in refugee law, speaks of a "foundational" text. "This is the first agreement that specifically addresses climate mobility," the University of New South Wales professor told AFP. "Most people don't want to leave their homes, they have very strong ancestral ties to their land and the sea, but it offers them security," she says. The text still needs to be ratified by both sides to enter into force.

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Tuvalan refugees in Australia will have access to education, health, financial and family support, among other services, the treaty said. Australia has also pledged A$16 million (€9.5 million) to shore up Tuvalu's eroding coastline and reclaim submerged land. However, the text deplores the fact that action has been taken so late, as the consequences of global warming are already palpable.

"At the same time, we believe that the people of Tuvalu deserve the choice to live, study and work elsewhere, as climate change worsens," the two leaders said in a joint statement. Albanese added that Australia is open to the idea of similar agreements with other neighbouring countries in the Pacific Ocean, adding that there would need to be a tailor-made treaty for each candidate.

A strategic pact for Australia's influence in the region

The pact may represent a strategic victory for Canberra, which intends to strengthen its influence in the region in the face of China's increased presence. The treaty includes a defence component, committing Australia to come to the aid of Tuvalu in the event of "military aggression", but also in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic. And it allows Canberra to have a say in any defence pact it signs with other countries.

This possibility is all the more important as the Solomon Islands, west of Tuvalu, have signed one with Beijing, with the agreement authorising the deployment of Chinese armed forces on their territory. "The Australia-Tuvalu union will be seen as an important day, where Australia recognised that it is part of the Pacific family," Albanese said, describing the treaty as "foundational" to reporters on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands.

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Relations are not perfect between Canberra and its neighbours, particularly because of Australia's dependence on coal and gas exports, two polluting economic items criticised by neighbouring nations that are already feeling the full force of rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather. Anthony Albanese stressed that developed countries must start taking more responsibility in the fight against climate change, while it is the developing countries that suffer the most.