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Tuvalu, Australia, and the Falepili Union

24 Nov 2023
By Taukiei Kitara and Dr Carol Farbotko
As part of her visit to New Caledonia and Tuvalu, Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP) hosted by Minister for Finance and Climate Change, Seve Paeniu. Source: Michael Godfrey /

The real message of falepili seems to have been missed in Australia’s negotiations with Tuvaluans. While a transactional relationship is implied, this should be free in giving, not a consequence of vulnerability.

The prospect of an uninhabitable Tuvalu, with its 26 square kilometres of low-lying land susceptible to sea level rise, has been a momentous issue for its population of just over 11,000 people for more than three decades. On 9 November 2023, Australia and Tuvalu signed a treaty called the Falepili Union, a key feature of which is a new migration pathway for Tuvaluans to Australia. Does the Falepili Union provide a comprehensive solution to Tuvalu’s climate change challenges?

Unfortunately, it does not. While the treaty offers a useful new migration pathway, and some funding for adaptation to climate change, it comes at a significant cost to Tuvalu’s sovereignty, and it achieves nothing material in the way of emissions reductions from Australia. Although a new migration option can offer some positive outcomes for Tuvaluan people in terms of livelihood diversification and the possibility of a future place to move should climate change render the islands uninhabitable, Australia has acquired veto power over Tuvalu’s security interests going forward.

The title of the treaty, “Falepili” (often written as fale pili), meaning looking after your neighbours as if they were family, in this context is misleading. Culturally, falepili is an act of giving to neighbours without expecting anything in return. For some Tuvaluans who have spoken about the treaty, there is a perception that Australia has not engaged with the true spirit of falepili. Demanding the handover of sovereign decision-making capability in exchange for migration rights reads more like an ultimatum, not a friend helping those in need. Under falepili, Australia would not need to build in a security veto right, rather they would understand that Australia can one day, when they need something, ask for it from Tuvalu. This is how falepili works.

Tuvalu, before signing this treaty, prioritised questions of permanent statehood, emissions reductions, and adapting to climate change. Tuvalu’s Long Term Adaptation Plan, for example, involves significant new areas of raised land on the capital to protect Tuvalu against sea level rise beyond 2100. Another example is the Future Now project, which aims to ensure that a Tuvaluan government and Tuvaluan culture can function in perpetuity, and that statehood and sovereignty is permanent, regardless of whether climate change impacts the territory. The concept of permanent statehood and sovereignty has recently been enshrined in Tuvalu’s constitution.

The treaty does not focus on these priorities, apart from a small commitment to adaptation funding and some rhetoric on recognising Tuvalu’s continuing statehood and sovereignty.

Statements on the treaty by Tuvaluan climate activists have focused on it’s failure to promote emissions reductions, urging people to understand that a new migration pathway detracts from what Tuvaluans see as their rights to safe territory in their own country. The opposition leader in Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, concerned about the lack of consultation among Tuvaluan communities, has called for a referendum as part of the treaty ratification process. Indeed, it is surprising that community consultations were not held with Tuvaluan communities to begin with. Developed in secrecy, the release of the text has only been made available in English.

On the positive side, the Falepili Union offers increased options for either permanent or circular migration abroad, which many Tuvaluans have long considered to be helpful in terms of education and employment. The treaty also provides the somewhat comforting knowledge that there is a place to go in the worst-case scenario that Tuvalu’s territory becomes uninhabitable. It should be noted, however, that either side can withdraw within 12 months if they choose.

Meanwhile, the question of whether migration to Australia will substantially benefit Tuvaluan people will depend on a range of factors, including the Tuvaluan diaspora community in Australia having access to resources to sufficiently support new arrivals; the extent to which issues such as brain drain in Tuvalu are successfully managed; and equitable access to the migration pathway for the most vulnerable. Interestingly, the Tuvaluan government has indicated that a similar agreement to the Falepili Union will be sought with New Zealand, supplementing the more limited existing Pacific Access Category (PAC) migration pathway, which has long been available to a limited number of working-age Tuvaluans to migrate to New Zealand.

It is very difficult to predict whether anything approaching the maximum number of 280 migrants per year will be taken up by Tuvaluans acting on the opportunity to move to Australia under the treaty. Many will give it serious thought, as they have already done with respect to the New Zealand PAC. Few Tuvaluans currently feel so physically threatened by climate change that they want to move abroad, but most acknowledge that conditions may change for the worse in the future. Many Tuvaluans describe the benefits of international migration as being for their children or grandchildren rather than themselves. Some also see movement abroad as important for work and study purposes, but for many others, there will be no immediate livelihood benefit. An average citizens’ wealth is bound up in customary land and it is not possible to draw on this unalienable resource for funding a new life in Australia. Those who do move are likely to be working-age people, with children and possibly retired parents. The framing of the pathway as one of climate mobility may discourage some migration to Australia, as Tuvaluans have long been wary of being stigmatised or discriminated against if they are labelled as “climate migrants.” Others have already decided that they intend to always stay on their ancestral lands.

No attention has thus far been paid by either the Tuvaluan or Australian governments to how the small Tuvaluan community in Australia will be acknowledged in their efforts to provide care, as needed, to new arrivals from Tuvalu. This is likely to range from sharing housing and food to helping secure work – a typical example of how falepili is experienced in Tuvaluan diaspora communities. However, the extent to which the very small Tuvaluan community in Australia, currently numbering only a few hundred people, can realistically provide the required assistance to up to 280 people per year, is questionable. There is a risk that the overall burden to the Tuvaluan diaspora in Australia will be quite high. While the Australian government has indicated access to healthcare, education, and income support, will Tuvaluan arrivals be able access affordable housing in Australia given Australia’s ongoing housing affordability crisis?

Further, how Tuvaluan culture will be nurtured for those migrating to Australia will be important, as culture has long been known to be one of the Tuvaluan people’s highest priorities to protect as they face the challenge of climate change. Such issues have not been addressed in the treaty. Australia could offer programs to help Tuvaluans nurture their culture, such as language and cultural centres, or sites for the all-important falekaupule or maneapa community meeting halls. It remains to be seen if Australia will be willing to address these issues, and make the treaty more genuinely about falepili, if requested by Tuvalu.

Taukiei Kitara is from Tuvalu, and lives in Queensland, Australia. He is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Australia

Carol Farbotko is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.