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World Bank urging Australia to ease migration rules for Pacific islanders

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Australia and New Zealand should relax migration rules on workers from Pacific islands and consider providing open access to people from low-lying atoll nations most at risk from climate change, the World Bank says.

In a report on the economic opportunities and challenges facing Pacific island nations, the bank identifies the region’s principal challenge as climate change, and says it should be given an avenue to depopulate, reports

“It would allow for gradual migration from the atoll nations and be less costly and preferable to a last-minute abandonment that would require a significant level of emergency assistance and be difficult to manage,” says the World Bank report presented in Samoa at the Pacific Islands Forum.

Last year Cyclone Winston, the most powerful tropical storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere, killed at least 42 people in Fiji. In 2015 Cyclone Pam killed 11 people in Vanuatu and caused $450m in damage.

The World Bank estimates a 15 to 20 per cent loss of habitable land in the atoll nations this century.

“Climate change is an existential threat for Pacific islands and could wipe out low-lying atoll nations,” said Jonathan Pryke, analyst at the Lowy Institute. “Extending labour mobility is one of the last tools left in the development aid toolkit.” Mr Pryke added that the strategy “could be a win-win by meeting labour shortages in Australia”.

A Lowy Institute report in December concluded that an uncapped Australian migration programme would have a transformational impact on the region, potentially quadrupling some islands’ income and boosting the region’s economy by US$20bn.

Australia has taken a hardline approach to immigration from the region and has been slow to explore the potential of creating paths for significant numbers of workers from the Pacific to meet skills gaps in the country. But there are signs this is changing amid growing recognition that its aid programmes in the region, which have cost A$40bn in real terms since 1960, have not delivered robust growth and that the country must act to counteract China’s growing influence in its backyard.

Australia introduced a seasonal worker programme in 2012, which has provided temporary employment opportunities to 17,000 Pacific island workers. It has also introduced a two-year microstate visa, enabling workers from Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu to work temporarily in the country if they can find employment in northern Australia.

As we have reported earlier, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salwai recently has stated that the subject of visa free entry to Australia and New Zealand for the holders of Vanuatu passports to be on the table for discussions in coming months, and offered Australia and New Zealand to increase their development assistance programmes in Pacific region.