Sea Level Rise and the Freely Associated States: Addressing Environmental Migration Under the Compacts of Free Association

11th February 2012 By: Briana Dema

In the coming century, rising sea levels have the potential to submerge coastal regions and displace millions of people.  While countries throughout the world will be affected, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified small island nations as “especially vulnerable” to the effects of sea level rise.  Three small island nations vulnerable to sea level rise—the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau—have relationships of “free association” with the United States.  The Freely Associated States (“FAS”) are sovereign nations that have negotiated Compacts of Free Association with the United States.  These Compacts give citizens of the FAS the right to enter, work, and live in the United States with few restrictions.  Although these provisions were originally negotiated long before rising sea levels threatened the habitability of islands within the FAS, because current refugee and immigration laws do not adequately address human displacement associated with climate change, these provisions could inadvertently serve as one of the few immigration options open to citizens of the FAS who choose to, or are forced to, relocate abroad due to rising sea levels.  This Note discusses whether the immigration provisions of the Compacts will provide an adequate framework to address migration from the FAS connected with sea level rise.  It argues that the immigration provisions will not provide an adequate solution to permanent or large-scale population displacement, but they could form part of an adaptive response to the climate change pressures that threaten the future of these island nations.

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