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Climate migration looms as major challenge for Oceania

Published 23 Jul 2019
Ben Taylor

As the environment strains under the load of human activity in the Anthropocene, human systems are similarly tested by climate forcings. In an address to AIIA Queensland on June 25, Dr Samid Suliman described the ungovernable nature of climate migration under current perceptions. Oceania’s particular sensitivity to climate change demands a reconceptualisation of human movement. According to Dr Suliman, this will enable regional migration governance which harnesses the potential of secure climate mobility and preserves human security.

Although the intersection of mobility and climate change are agreed to be key issues, there is no consensus on how to address or define its challenges. Dr Suliman noted the state-centric approach of current migration governance models, their national security skew and their lack of transnational cooperation. Oceania’s human history has long been defined by mobility and Dr Suliman argued that the region, as a “marker of commonality and difference’’, should underpin the ways that we govern migration. The region must be considered “a site of collaboration and cooperation on climate change’’.

With careful appreciation for technicalities, Dr Suliman reminded us that the concept of Oceania as a region had its own problematic roots. To breed appropriate migration governance, Oceania must be mobility-kind and go beyond the prevailing neo-liberal regionalism. The understanding of “region’’ must evolve to consider alternatives without simply reiterating the status quo. Suliman praised the Boe declaration for rightly redefining security in regional, climate-sensitive terms. A similarly evolved understanding of Oceania is foundational in addressing its foreboding climate threats.

Migration and mobility also require reimagining. In creating the governance frameworks required to manage climate migration, the perception of the migrant and their condition becomes key. Extant systems deny new ways of transversal and kinetic living and stifle hope of envisioning movement as anything other than abhorrent. The result is the migrant, depoliticised and victimised, viewed as a vector of insecurity and a target of state intervention. The polarisation of the liberal-statist perspectives of the argument paints the migrant as an ungovernable object of governance.

Climate change impacts on many oceanic communities have already been severe, but the prognosis only worsens. Interestingly, Dr Suliman described the crisis situation, not in the impending mass migration in Oceania, but instead pointed to the lack of appropriate regional migration governance as the true source of concern. He recognises the complexity in addressing these issues, from its scalarity to the radical uncertainty in climate projections.

Crucially, he asserts that now is a pivotal time that demands this reconceptualisation of climate migration. By reimagining the current means and modes of migration, we can productively conceptualise human movement. The result, he claims, would be a new understanding which is able to build governance frameworks that ensure the security and dignity of mobile people. Dr Suliman’s compelling critical theory of Oceania’s regional migration governance prompted spirited discussion among the AIIA Queensland audience. This was an indication of the timeliness of his call to action and of the importance of climate mobility in international affairs.


Dr Suliman is a lecturer in Migration and Security in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University and a member of AIIA Queensland.