Wellington, Dec 10 NZPA - A Kiribati leader who fears her country will be lost to rising sea says New Zealand and Australia are not doing enough to help the climate change refugees of Kiribati.
Tessie Lambourne, the Foreign Secretary of the former Gilbert Islands in Micronesia, who has flown to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations with President Anote Tong, said the Kiribati government wanted New Zealand and Australia to provide its people with a safe haven from the rising sea.
In the meantime, they want the governments to help pay for training islanders so they arrive in their new homes with skills.
"There is a serious threat to our very own existence as a people and as a nation," she told the ABC. "People are trying to grapple with this thought. Are we really going to lose our home? And where are we going to live? Or our children or children's children? Where are they going to live? And how are they going to survive? "We do not want to relocate as environmental refugees," she said. "We want to be able to relocate on merit and with dignity."
This could be done by upskilling people so they could meet international labour standards and fill in labour gaps in other countries.
Kiribati has about 100,000 people living in huts and basic houses on dozens of low lying coral atolls north of Samoa -- which the country fears will be covered by sea water within 50 years.
"One island, actually a whole village has been relocated. The sea has crept into their village and so they had to move," said Ms Lambourne. Professor Jonathan Boston, of the Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria University, told the ABC that neither the New Zealand nor Australian governments had clear policies on climate change refugees.
"Neither government to my knowledge have undertaken any serious attempt to introduce this particular issue to the public, specifying other the potential implications for New Zealand and Australia in terms of the numbers of climate change refugees from the South Pacific or in terms of the additional assistance that New Zealand and Australia will need to provide to assist small island states," he said.
"The issue really hasn't been raised by the two governments ... nor has it really been put adequately on the agenda by the academic communities or the non-governmental organisations." Wellington photographer Tony Whincup, who has been photographing evidence of climate change on the islands for 30 years, said the coral atolls were two metres high at the highest point.
"Kiribati is one of those places where whatever, whichever way climate change goes -- rising sea level, changes in temperature, changes in weather patterns, of violent storms -- they're hit every which way," said Mr Whincup.
He described the impacts as heartbreaking, considering there was virtually no carbon footprint or pollution of the world from Kiribati, and the country was being destroyed by other affluent nations many thousands of kilometres away.