People forced from home by climate change: Lambeth Roundtable on Climate Change Migrants and Refugees – with a focus on small island states

14 February 2019

Archbishops Winston Halapua and Justin Welby with High Commissioner Winnie Kiap of Papua New Guinea

“Three of the five nations named by the United Nations as anticipated to be under water by the end of the century are within the Diocese of Polynesia. Scientists stated recently that this human-made tragedy may happen within the next 50 years. The nations are Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. In Fiji, the headquarters of the Diocese of Polynesia, there are hundreds of villages listed for relocation.”  So said Archbishop Emeritus Dr Winston Halapua, former Bishop of Polynesia, in his keynote address.

In late January, a unique gathering of distinguished academics, diplomats, faith leaders and faith-based organisations met at Lambeth Palace under the aegis of the Archbishop of Canterbury to explore migration caused by climate change. Central to the day were contributions from Oceania, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean – from people who are involved and affected – to see what can be learnt in the search for effective responses.

Welcoming the participants, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, “Climate change is about justice. As Christians we’re called to protect God’s creation, and the billions of people whose lives are at risk”.

The roundtable was convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Representative to the Commonwealth with the support of the Anglican Alliance. Disaster response and resilience is one of the Anglican Alliance’s priorities. Examples of the work we are engaged in and resources can be found here.

A detailed record of this exceptional day, with a summary of each speaker’s contribution and links to their presentations is provided below. Key themes that emerged during the day included:

  • the complex mix of challenges facing small island states to which climate change adds;
  • the diverse impacts of climate change – from sea level rise to increased risk of disasters – all of which disrupt livelihoods and have the potential to drive migration;
  • the enormous and unsustainable costs of building defences against sea level incursion;
  • the uncertain status of climate migrants under international law;
  • the repercussions of migration including loss of culture, history, sovereignty and identity, and the potential for conflict with host communities and between generations;
  • the fact that animals as well as people are being displaced by climate change;
  • that the Church is responding in myriad ways to the challenges both in terms of responding to disasters and building resilience.

Delegates from all groups urged the Church to speak boldly on the ethical dimension of climate change and displacement.

Participants were able to discuss what they had heard both informally over lunch and during plenary sessions. The opportunity to learn from different disciplines, hear different perspectives and forge new alliances was greatly valued by all who came.

Dr Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor in Coastal Oceanography at Southampton University, reflected on the day saying, “People around the world are already being affected, so I think this is a fantastic opportunity for a whole lot of different organisations to get together and say, ‘where do we stand on this issue, what can we do?’”


The High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea, Her Excellency Winnie Kiap, welcomed the focus on ethical issues raised by climate change and displacement saying, “The ethical dimension is left out quite a lot by bureaucrats, but it is very encouraging that the Church is coming into play because I think in my mind I’m expecting the Church to delve more and make more prominent the ethical side of the question”.


Jamie Draper from Reading University also welcomed the range of experience at the gathering. “The value of a workshop like today is that instead of getting together with other academics I get to get together with a very wide cross-section of different people, who are able to share their experience and the experiences of the people they represent, and it really amplifies the voices of people who might not otherwise be heard, especially in an academic context,” he said. “So one of the great advantages of this kind of thing is to be able to reach across different networks which don’t normally interact”.


Lalinda Wickremeratne, one of the contributors from Sri Lanka, also spoke of the benefit of hearing from people from different disciplines saying, “I had previously not given serious thought to the rights of migrants due to climate change”.

In the co-Chair’s concluding remarks, The Right Rev’d Helen-Anne Hartley, Bishop of Ripon, shared from her own experience of visiting Fiji and how she had gained an understanding of the vulnerability of living in such a setting. She also spoke of how she had learned from the people there the importance of moving from talking about ‘climate change’ to ‘climate action’, a challenge she shared with the room at the end of this full and formative day.


The day in detail

Climate change has been described as “the defining issue of our time” by António Guterres, UN Secretary-General. It is adversely impacting people across the world through altered weather patterns, extreme weather events, rising sea levels and the consequent salination of soil. Already, such impacts are so severe that climate change is a factor in people having to abandon their land and homes, and the impact is felt especially powerfully in small island states. Climate change as a factor in migration is not a future possibility, but today’s reality [1].

However, those who are forced from home by climate change are currently excluded from the international conventions addressing migration and refugees, and their existence, aspirations and needs overlooked. One of the purposes of the day was to address this anomaly.

Churches, faith communities and faith-based organisations are frequently in the front line of disaster response and resilience. They not only have considerable experience of responding to the needs of affected individuals and communities, but also of helping communities adapt to climate change and mitigate its impacts. A second aim of the day was to see and hear how churches, faith communities and faith-based organisations are making a difference.

In addition, the round table aimed to identify ways forward that place the experiences and concerns of climate change migrants and refugees front and centre, and that focus on asset-based, local responses to adaptation and mitigation.

Archbishop Halapua (left) and Bishop Pwaisiho

Voices from the Islands 1
The keynote address was given by Archbishop Emeritus Dr Winston Halapua, the former Bishop of Polynesia and one of three Co-Archbishops of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

Archbishop Winston spoke passionately from his own context of Polynesia, where the question “Where do you come from?” (rather than “What is your name?”) is the usual way strangers initiate conversation, indicating the primacy of place to a person’s identity.

He said, “Pacific islanders are people of land but also of Oceania, which provides abundant resources for the sustaining of life, communication links and helps to form our world view. Life is embraced and sustained by the ocean. We have often grown up with a sense of wonder at creation and we live with the rhythm of creation. We have a prophetic voice to raise on behalf of creation, both islands and ocean”.

Archbishop Winston went on to describe the “very real evidence of life-threatening manifestations of climate change in the Pacific”. Sea level rise threatens the very existence of three nations within the Diocese of Polynesia as well as many individual communities, as described above.


Archbishop Winston shared his profoundly moving video: ‘Creation: a letter to the Anglican Communion’ (below) which explores what the care of creation means in his province and ended by looking at how we might respond to the challenges.


Responding to the keynote address, Bishop William Pwaisiho OBE, former Bishop of Malaita in the Anglican Church of Melanesia, shared from his own perspective of the Solomon Islands. “Today, where I come from in the Solomon Islands, the low-lying atolls are now under water”, he said and described how people have not only lost their homes and livelihoods but everything they had, including their culture and evidence of their history.

He described how in 2002 he led a Blue Peter team from the BBC when they filmed his home island of Walande, then home to over 1000 people. When they returned 14 years later, the whole island had been lost to the waves. The video below tells this story.

Bishop William issued a strong challenge to people in rich countries saying, “I want you to know your good life is causing misery and costing lives through climate change and global warming”.


The international legal, ethical and political context

Climate “refugees”?
Dr Matthew Scott, from the People on the Move team at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Lund, opened this section with a presentation on the complexities of determining the status of climate change migrants under international law.

“In international law it is very difficult to establish that a person is a [climate change] refugee and that is because of the basic definition of a refugee under the Refugee Convention, which requires that a person can establish a well-founded fear of being persecuted for one of five reasons… Typically people point to rising sea levels, for example, and say ‘where is the act of persecution in that?’”. The same is true of international human rights law, which again requires human agency.

However, Dr Scott said, “That doesn’t mean that the International Community isn’t dealing with this issue very actively” and he described some initiatives being taken to establish effective practices for cross-border displacement. These started in around 2012 with the Nansen Initiative, out of which came a protection agenda which was endorsed by 109 states. “This way forward recognises international refugee law as an important way forward and recognises human rights law as an important consideration, but also emphasises the building of regional, sub-regional and bilateral practices that can deal with the context-specific dynamics of cross-border displacement”.

Dr Scott then went on to point out that the vast majority of people are displaced in this context are displaced within the borders of their own countries, so there is a need for effective practices here too. This is an area the Raoul Wallenberg is currently studying in ten countries, looking at the role of national and international policy in preventing displacement and protecting those who are displaced and facilitating durable solutions.

Finally, Dr Scott sounded a cautious note of optimism, citing the recently adopted Global Compacts for Migration where “for the first time in an international document relating to the management of migration, displacement in the context of disasters and climate change is mentioned multiple times”.


The ethics of climate‐induced community displacement and resettlement
Professor Catriona McKinnon, Jamie Draper and Dr Alex Arnall, from the University of Reading’s Centre for Climate and Justice, talked about their work on the ethics of climate‐induced community displacement and resettlement.

Jamie Draper set the scene by saying, “Both work amongst political philosophers and also amongst activists in social movements, people are beginning to frame climate-related movement as a matter of justice as opposed to merely a matter of security and a humanitarian issue.” This raises all sorts of ethical questions, for example about who has rights to shared community goods, about the place of compensation, about lost sovereignty and about the participation of affected communities in the relocation process.

Professor McKinnon continued on the importance of participation in thinking about climate displacement. “In order to really achieve justice in relocation and issues around climate displacement, you have to understand what the people who are facing displacement really care about, what their justice-based concerns are and then put those solutions at the heart of policy responses” she said.

She and her team are working on a novel framework for thinking about the ethics of climate displacement that takes participation as its starting point, but which also goes beyond it. Their model takes a bottom-up approach to claims-making in the face of climate displacement, focused on the justice-based concerns of the affected communities. The analytical framework under development has four components of naming (identifying climate change as the driver of displacement – or not), blaming (communities identify the parties who are responsible for satisfying those claims), claiming (a broad term that encompasses the making of demands through the community’s political agency, for example by means of political protest, litigation or lobbying) and framing (where the community present their claims in terms of what they value as a community and which may, or may not, marry up with pre-existing top down frameworks).


Dr Alex Arnall concluded the presentation by highlighting how resilience and adaptation approaches tend to place responsibility on affected communities, in contrast to a claims-based approach which places responsibility on others with respect to the impacts of climate change. He outlined the team’s intention to trial this claims-based framework with affected communities.


Vulnerability of small island states to sea level rise and climate change
Dr Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor in Coastal Oceanography, Ocean and Earth Science at Southampton University’s National Oceanography Centre, talked about the vulnerability of small island states to sea level rise and climate change. A copy of his PowerPoint presentation is here.

Dr Haigh described how small island states, though varied, share similar challenges of small populations, remoteness, heavy dependence on trade (and aid), high energy-costs and disproportionally expensive infrastructure and administration due to their small size. They are therefore especially vulnerable to the additional threats of sea level rise and climate change-related disasters.

He explained that according to geological data, sea levels had been relatively stable over the last 6000 years. But tide gauge records show that around the end of the 19th century the mean sea level began to rise and over the last 130 years has risen by about 20 cm. In the last 15 years, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated to over 3mm per year.

Continuing his sobering assessment, Dr Haigh shared graphs illustrating how, in a ‘business as usual’ scenario, sea levels are on a trajectory to rise by up to 5 metres by 2300. If action on climate change is taken in line with the Paris Agreement, it will be possible to limit sea level rise to around 1 metre. This is a considerably better long-term picture, but 50% of Solomon Islanders live on land that is less than 3m above sea level. Preventing any further sea rise is not possible because of the global warming that has already taken place and the long lag period in its consequences for sea levels.

Dr Haigh described some of the impacts of sea level rise. As well as causing land loss, it causes increased flooding, erosion and salt-water intrusion. Coral decline is also of key importance as the coral barrier reduces total wave energy by an average of 97% and reduces wave height by an average of 84%

In conclusion, Dr Haigh said that sea level rise is “one of the most certain and costly consequences of climate change”. However, he ended on an optimistic note, reminding everyone that, “if enough people come together internationally, there is almost no problem we cannot solve”.

Voices from the Islands 2

Throughout the Anglican Communion churches and agencies are working to help communities respond – and become more resilient – to disasters. Connecting and equipping Anglicans for this work is one of the priorities of the Anglican Alliance. At the round table we were privileged to hear from three further speakers from small island states who are engaged in such work and who shared how churches, faith communities and faith-based organisations are making a difference in their regions.

Sri Lanka
Lalinda Wickremeratne has worked with the Diocese of Colombo, the National Christian Council and other institutions in Sri Lanka on disaster risk reduction, community development and was involved in relocating people after the 2004 tsunami.
Nagulan Nesiah is Episcopal Relief & Development’s Senior Programme Officer for Disaster Response and Risk Reduction.

A copy of their PowerPoint presentation can be found here.

Lalinda started by outlining the Sri Lankan context, where climate change adds to previous challenges, including the protracted civil war and 2004 tsunami. Sri Lanka is number 2 on the latest Global Climate Risk Index. Twenty five per cent of the workforce is in agriculture (even though it only produces 12% of GDP) meaning there is a large population vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Coastal areas are also at risk. Many people live in coastal areas and they are responsible for 43% of the country’s GDP.


Nagulan described some of the impacts of climate change and their repercussions. One example he cited was how fishermen, because of rising water temperatures, are either moving much deeper into the ocean to fish or moving to different coastal areas where there are fish closer to the coast. The former requires different types of boats, which are unaffordable for many, whilst the latter leads to tension and conflict with existing fishing communities.


Lalinda further expanded on some of the migration patterns that are being seen in Sri Lanka. Traditionally, Sri Lanka cultivated crops twice a year, but the shortage of rainfall has restricted this to once a year, threatening livelihoods. As a result, many men migrate to urban areas (but are unskilled outside of agriculture) and many – especially women – migrate more permanently overseas (for example, to work as maids in the Middle East). He noted that when such migration happens, people are leaving land they do not legally own, so when they leave, they lose their right of return, as well as an asset that could have been transferred down through the generations. As one of the country representatives later speaker pointed out, this can lead to inter-generational conflict down the line. As a further result of such migration, children are often growing up without one of their parents, which correlates with an observed increase in child abuse and teenage aggression.

Lalinda was involved in the resettlement of people displaced by the 2004 tsunami and described it as “insanely difficult”, indicating the reality of the challenges large-scale migration causes.


Nagulan ended the Sri Lankan contribution by describing some of the ways faith-based actors are responding to these challenges. Interventions for people who are displaced include developing people’s skills for non-agricultural jobs, providing education, water and health care, and working for reconciliation, peace and justice to reduce conflict. Churches and organisations are also helping people adapt to the challenges and become more resilient. Efforts here include rehabilitating ancient tanks and wells to reduce dependency on rainfall, introducing drought-resistant seeds, economic empowerment and training people in disaster responses and mitigation.


Clifton Nedd, the Anglican Alliance’s Caribbean Facilitator, described similar climate change impacts across the Caribbean and also emphasised that climate change is just one of many challenges facing the region. Livelihoods are being severely eroded by climate change. For example, the micro-climates of different elevations are changing, causing traditional crops to fail and pests to increase. Storm surges and intense rains cause silt to be washed into the sea, to the detriment of both the fertility of the land and the life of the sea – again resulting in livelihoods being lost.

Various mitigation projects have been undertaken in Grenada, some of which are shown in this film from the Nature Conservancy:

Such endeavours are very important and welcome, Clifton said. However, he also stressed their huge and unsustainable cost to Caribbean governments, as well as the fact they are funded at the expense of other important social budgets such as healthcare and education.

“What is the Church’s response and where are we going?” Clifton asked. “Historically the Church has been involved in assisting in the immediate aftermath of disasters such as hurricanes, for example with shelters and food supplies and so on. Currently the Church supplies a lot of emergency support, pastoral care and psycho-social support. It is also working with communities to build resilience”.

Clifton went on to describe some of the tools the Church uses to build resilience, including the Pastors and Disasters toolkit, developed by Episcopal Relief & Development. This is being used to great effect in different regions (link) and in March there will be a Pastors and Disasters workshop for churches in the Caribbean convened by the Anglican Alliance in partnership with by Episcopal Relief & Development.

Clifton also referred to an upcoming round table about displaced people is being held at St Crispin’s Church in Woodbrook, Trinidad. “So the Church is involved and is waking up to its role in that process, but when we think about that role, it can’t just be to respond… We have to think about prevention and use our advocacy voice to ensure that commitments, such as that agreed in Paris is maintained, because we are literally living on the water’s edge.”

Clifton’s talk concluded with a reflection on a recent trip to Carriacou, one of Grenada’s three islands, where he had visited a cemetery that is being lost to the rising seas. He said, “As a Church we think of the Communion – those who have gone before, those who are here, those who are coming. We think about care for all of creation… the refugees are not just the people who have to move but also the animals that are affected… everything in God’s creation”. Pointing to a backdrop of images of the graves being eroded, Clifton continued, “[Carriacou] is a place where people feel particularly connected to their ancestors…. I can understand, in the context where people feel that close and that connected, how painful this must be. You can see the date on that gravestone is 2014. This is not somebody who died two hundred years ago who somebody might not actually remember. This is someone somebody held, somebody knew, somebody loved, who is still alive to remember. Who speaks for them?”

Following the presentations, delegates divided into table groups of similar people (NGOs, diplomats, academics etc) to consider: what they –  in their position as diplomats, academics etc – can uniquely do or contribute in the context of migration resulting from climate change; what they want or need from other groups (for example: information, experience, advocacy, practical help etc); what opportunities exist for collaboration.

The Anglican Alliance is working collaboratively with other bodies both inside the Anglican Communion and externally, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth – the fifth Anglican mark of mission.  Further information and resources about Anglican environmental work can be found on the following links: Anglican Communion Environment Network; The Anglican Communion Office at the UN; Anglican Alliance reflective PowerPoints here.

[1] Migration and Environmental Change Report, 2011; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre Report; IPCC reports