Human Security in the Pacific : the Climate Refugees of the Sinking Islands

Date of Award

Fall 11-5-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Law (SJD)



First Advisor

Chris Okeke

Second Advisor

Jon Sylvester

Third Advisor

Sophie Clavier


In recent years, global warming has become an increasingly urgent universal concern. Probably the most important environmental challenge in the history of the modem world is now widely recognized to be a result of increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, generally produced by human activity.

It is generally well accepted that this climate change will have serious environmental, economic and geopolitical consequences. The scientific projections of increased global temperatures present the prospect of rising sea levels and associated risks to coastal areas, increased risks of floods and droughts, new and exacerbated public health issues and threats to biodiversity and the viability of numerous ecosystems around the world. Economically, the impact of global warming could be dramatic, considering only the prospective 50 to 250 million displaced people in the next 50 years. Nevertheless, the impact of climate change also involves the geopolitical arena, several states being directly threatened by increased pollution activities of other countries and facing imminent disappearance.

In this context, the complex problem of the Sinking Islands represents a relatively controversial and new aspect of global warming. The crisis faced by multiple island nations due to rising sea levels that are in tum a result of climate change in principal, is also supported by a general passivity of the international community in regard to the lives of the Pacific islanders, with severe global costs, as ecological disasters and civilizations collapse.

This paper aims to analyze the case of sinking islands as a scientifically demonstrated fact from the environmental point of view, particularly focused on climate change as the main cause. With quality and academic progressive interpretation of law the paper will also legally thrash out the refugee aspect of the problem and the forced migration process, as a subsidiary effect. The legal analysis will be naturally corroborated with international human rights law and the related supporting documents, conclusively offering legal solutions under the umbrella of international law to this global cutting-edge problem.

It is obligatory that these branches of international law, from which perspectives the problem will be analyzed (environmental, refugee and human rights) to be regarded and interpreted as interdependent and interconnected fields, as they together constitute the legal core of the problem. Furthermore, only intrinsically connected and not viewed in isolation from each other, the three main "perspectives" could provide a better legal identification, collating and enforcement of the international obligations to protect the Pacific islanders, along with more sustainable and equitable policy responses to this global predicament.

In addition, one of the purposes of this dissertation is to extend the previous work in the "Climate Refugee" field in regard to a broad recognition and acceptance of the term in international (refugee) law and to explore the potential application of the "Economic Refugee" idiom, sui generis and its inevitability of use in the Pacific islanders' context.

The present work shall also extract its innovative component from the research and analyze the problem itself, supported by developed action-oriented case studies on specific Pacific islands, contributing inter alia with an academic insight in the field of international law.

Hereby, the salient objective of the paper is to evaluate the challenge of the Sinking Pacific Islands, supported by research and policies analysis of the legal or legislative developments at international and national level for countries within the region (e.g., new domestic legislation, constitutional amendments, significant case law), finally aiming at the global aspect of the issue, its worldwide concern and the eventual international comprehensive plans of action, proposed in the conclusions and recommendations of the paper.

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