International Migrants Day

How Kiribati manages the impacts of climate displacement through labour migration

The ILO estimates that there are more than 150 million migrant workers in today’s world. Climate change may increase this number in the coming years, raising the need for improved migration management as exemplified by the small Pacific island nation Kiribati.

Feature | 18 December 2015
SOUTH TARAWA, Kiribati (ILO News) – “Today my family’s house will flood,” says Newton Ioane, having heard a tide warning on the local radio.

The 22 year-old i-Kiribati student is used to tides sweeping through his family home, and knows that today his family will seek refuge at a relatives’ house before returning to repair the damage several days later.

Low-lying Pacific island countries like the Republic of Kiribati are the most vulnerable to climate change and their environmental impact. On South Tarawa – the capital of Kiribati, and a thin strip of land which is home to some 60,000 people representing more than half of Kiribati’s total population – daily high tides spill onto the narrow causeway that separates the islands.

During king tides and storm surges, these same waves pummel seawalls, inundate houses and contaminate groundwater. Last April, water surged through the maternity ward in the island’s only hospital, leaving its inhabitants knee deep in water.

“They say that Kiribati will soon cease to exist,” Newton says with a nervous laugh, adding – “it makes me sad… the other countries are just not listening. And if things don’t change then it will be chaos here.”

Creating a compass

It’s not just environmental factors, but also a lack of employment opportunities on the islands that make life hard for people like Newton.

It’s critical that Kiribati youth have options, including both jobs here in the country and through labour migration.”

Antoine Barnaart, the Principal of Kiribati Institute of Technology (KIT)
“Because of the rising population employment options for young people in Kiribati are very limited,” explains Antoine Barnaart, the Principal of Kiribati Institute of Technology (KIT). “It’s critical that Kiribati youth have options, including both jobs here in the country and through labour migration.”

A project in Kiribati recognizes the importance of labour migration in providing decent jobs for Kiribati’s workforce.

The EU-funded Pacific Climate Change and Migration project, which is implemented by the ILO together with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the United Nations’ Development Programme (UNDP), has been supporting the Kiribati Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development to develop a national labour migration policy which brings together government agencies, training institutions, the social partners and civil society organizations.

“It’s important to have a vision, a framework that we can work towards,” says Mr Barnaart of the policy, “it’s a compass which can link the training we provide to job opportunities abroad and foreign employment promotion work by government.”

This is particularly critical given the likely impact of climate change on forced movement.

“We recognize the important role of international labour migration in addressing a deficit of employment opportunities on our islands, and promoting economic and social development,” notes the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. “It is also a critical component in the concept of Migration with Dignity, which articulates the importance of training in Kiribati to allow skilled labour migration in response to climate change threats to livelihoods at home.”

Endorsed by the country’s Cabinet in October 2015, government Ministries and social partners are now mobilizing to begin implementation.

Protecting workers abroad

The protection of i-Kiribati workers abroad is a central pillar of the labour migration policy.

Thus the policy creates measures that are not only aimed at promoting new opportunities for migration, strengthening the long-term development benefits of migration and improving coordination, but also the protection of people moving abroad for work. The ILO has been supporting Kiribati to build capacity to provide support services, including training on foreign employment research and promotion, as well as training of trainers in providing career counselling for labour migrants.

Joyce and Newton
This is good news for youngsters like 21 year-old Joyce Takautu, studying automotive mechanics at the KIT. She is one in a growing number of trained students who could benefit from migration opportunities to support her family, if she was not able to find a job in Kiribati’s small labour market. Joyce already has a sister living in Brisbane who works as a nurse.

“My sister has a good life in Australia, and sends money home to our family,” says the student.

As young people like Joyce and Newton face an uncertain future in their country, managing labour migration has never been so important in this remote island country.