Kiribati Relocation Strategy: An Exploration Of The Risks Kiribati Faces If Sea Levels Continue To Rise

by Virginia Raffaeli

Sea level rise is one of the most well known effects of the ongoing climate crisis. At a current estimated average rate of 3.6 mm per year, by 2050 sea level will have risen 24-32 cm [1]. Although this number may seem small, it is sufficient to have disastrous consequences on the hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying areas [2]. Amongst these, in the central Pacific Ocean we find the I-Kiribati, an indigenous people counting circa 119,000 individuals, living on the 32 atolls and one raised coral island which form the independent Republic of Kiribati [3].

According to the IPCC, if sea level rise continues at the present rate, by the middle of the century Kiribati is at risk of disappearing altogether [4]. The I-Kiribati are therefore facing an unprecedented question: what is the future of Kiribati and its people [5]?

Adaptation or displacement?

Pacific Island nations, such as Kiribati, are at the forefront of the climate crisis. First, they are extremely vulnerable to climate related events which are increasing in frequency due to the rise in global temperatures [1]. Second, they are amongst the least developed countries in the world and, as such, have little access to the resources necessary for effective mitigation and/or adaptation strategies [6].

Due to its high population density and scarce agricultural development, Kiribati is already plagued by food insecurity as well as significant water scarcity [7]. The rising sea level compounds these problems threatening the lives and livelihoods of the I-Kiribati [7].

For these reasons, in 2005 Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, raised before the UN General Assembly the possibility of relocation of the entire I-Kiribati community, arguing that deliberate strategic relocation might be the ultimate form of adaptation to climate change [5]. 

Climate-induced migration, internal and cross-border, is not a novel idea. People have always relocated as a consequence of climate impacts, as was temporarily or permanently the case for over a million people following the flooding and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 [8, 9]. What is predicted to change, however, is the scale of the phenomenon. Indeed, there is growing consensus that “significant numbers” of people will not just relocate within their own territories, but will move across borders as environmental conditions worsen [10].

Yet, what the legal status of these persons will be remains uncertain [11].

Although often referred to as “climate refugees”, even people who are forcefully displaced due to their villages being swept away by water, for example, are not, legally speaking, “refugees” [11]. Since they are not “persecuted”, they cannot be classified as “refugees” under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention [12, 13].

For this reason, alternative avenues for protection are being developed, ranging from initiatives such as the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea Level Rise, to the application of human rights law [14, 10].

In Teitiota v New Zealand, in particular, an I-Kiribati man argued before the UN Human Rights Committee that, by sending him back to Kiribati, New Zealand would violate the principle of non-refoulement because the impacts of climate change represented a risk of irreparable harm to his right to life under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [15, 16]. Although Teitiota’s claim failed on the facts, the Committee did, nonetheless, recognise that in the future a similar claim may succeed [13, 15].

Migration with dignity and relocation to Fiji

As stated above, in just a few decades Kiribati may no longer exist as a physical territory. The I-Kiribati therefore are having to consider not whether they will have to leave, but how [5]. Rather than relying exclusively on its Adaptation Plan or on the eventuality of something like Teitiota’s claim one day succeeding, over the last fifteen years the Kiribati Government has adopted two separate strategies [17].

First, it has set up higher education and mobility programmes with states such as Australia and New Zealand, in line with a policy plan that has been referred to as “Migration with Dignity” [5, 18].

Second, it has taken steps to potentially implement the “deliberate strategic relocation” suggested by Anote Tong. In 2014 the Government struck a deal to purchase 5,460 acres of land in Fiji, with the declared aims of using it not only to ensure food security, but also as a possible destination of relocation [18].

Contrary to the “Migration with Dignity” programmes, which exclude people with limited literacy skills and largely subsistence livelihoods, and which are non considered to be sustainable long-term due to the restrictive migration requirements imposed by other states, the prospective relocation of the I-Kiribati to Fiji has been welcomed by the Fijian Government [17, 19].

Nevertheless, the submerging and relocation of Kiribati raises serious questions regarding firstly whether it could continue to exist as a sovereign state irrespective of the complete loss of territory [20]. More importantly, despite the fact that in 2014 the Fijian president stated that “The spirit of the people of Kiribati will not be extinguished [17]. It will live on somewhere else because a nation isn’t only a physical place”, the relocation also raises the issue of whether the I-Kiribati culture, traditions and language themselves and, therefore, the I-Kiribati as a people will survive [17].

Virginia Raffaeli is a law and policy researcher currently working for the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) in Switzerland. Before, she worked as a Legal Intern for the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), focusing on the impact of climate change on land in the context of indigenous and women’s rights. She holds an LL.B. from the University of Durham and an LL.M. in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights from the Geneva Academy.


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2019). Special Report: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, Chapter 4 Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities, paras. 4.1.2, 4.3.2, URL: (accessed 16 May 2021).

[2] Merkens, J.-L., L. Reimann, J. Hinkel and A. T. Vafeidis (2016). Gridded population projections for the coastal zone under the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. Global and Planetary Change, 145: 58-59,

[3] Kiribati National Statistics Office (2020). Kiribati Population and Housing Census Provisional Results, URL: (accessed 16 May 2021).

[4] Donner, S. D. and S. Webber (2014). Obstacles to climate change adaptation decisions: a case study of sea-level rise and coastal protection measures in Kiribati. Sustainability Science, 9 (3): 331-345,

[5] Hermann E. and Kempf E. (2017). Climate Change and Imaging of Migration: Emerging Discourses on Kiribati’s Land Purchase in Fiji. The Contemporary Pacific, 29 (2): 231-233, 237,

[6] Barnett J., Adger W.N. (2003). Climate dangers and atoll countries. Climatic Change, 61: 321–337,

[7] Loughry M. and McAdam J. (2008). Kiribati – relocation and adaptation. Forced Migration Review, 31: 51-52, URL:

[8] Borges I.M. (2018). Environmental Change, Forced Displacement and International Law: From Legal Protection Gaps to Protection Solutions. Milton, Routledge: 16.

[9] Sastry N., Gregory J. (2014). The Location of Displaced New Orleans Residents in the Year After Hurricane Katrina. Demography, 51 (3): 4,

[10] McAdam J. (2020). Protecting People Displaced by the Impacts of Climate Change: The UN Human Rights Committee and the Principle of Non-Refoulement. American Journal of International Law, 114(4): 712, 709,

[11] McAdam J. (2012). Conceptualising Climate Change-Related Movement, in American Society of International Law (2012). Confronting Complexity, Vol. 16, Proceedings of 106th Annual Meeting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 433-436,

[12] 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 UNTS 137 (adopted 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954), Art. 1A(2).

[13] Caskey C. (2020). Environmental Degradation: Examining the Entry Points and Improving Access to Protection. The Global Migration Research Paper Series, 26: 6, 16-17, ISBN: 978-2-8399-3111-3.

[14] Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise (2018). Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea Level Rise, International Law Association ILA res. 6/2018, annex, 19-24 Aug. 2018.

[15] United Nations Human Rights Committee, Teitiota v. New Zealand (2019), UN Doc. CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016, para. 9.7.

[16] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 999 UNTS 171 (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976), Article 6.

[17] Roberts E. and Andrei S. (2015). The rising tide: migration as a response to loss and damage from sea level rise in vulnerable communities. International Journal of Global Warming, 8(2): 262, 264, 267,

[18] Oakes, R., Milan, A., and Campbell J. (2016). Kiribati: Climate change and migration – Relationships between household vulnerability, human mobility and climate change. Report No. 20. Bonn: United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS): 28, URL:

[19] McNamara K.E. (2015). Cross-border migration with dignity in Kiribati, Forced Migration Review, 49: 64, URL:

[20] Kälin, W. (2010). Conceptualising climate-induced displacement, in McAdam, J. (Ed.). Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford and Portland, Hart Publishing: 81 – 103.

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