Australia offers Tuvalu residents special visa in ‘groundbreaking’ treaty

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has hailed a “groundbreaking agreement” between Australia and Tuvalu that will see Australia create a new dedicated visa for Tuvaluans to live and work in Australia and commit to helping the Pacific nation in the event of emergencies.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano on Friday confirmed the two countries will enter a bilateral treaty that offers special visas to Tuvalu residents to work, study and live in Australia as the Pacific nation faces the existential threats of climate change.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea on One Foot Island after Leaders’ Retreat during the Pacific Islands Forum.Credit: AAP

Under the deal, Australia will be given an effective veto over the establishment of any security pact or defence partnership between Tuvalu and China in a major win for the government’s efforts to limit China’s military influence in the Pacific.

At a press conference alongside Natano in the Cook Islands, Albanese said 280 people from Tuvalu will be allowed to migrate to Australia per year under a special mobility pathway that “does not cause brain drain” from the tiny Pacific Island nation, which has about 11,200 residents.

Albanese described the arrangement, known as the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union, as “the most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever”.

“It will be regarded as a significant day in which Australia acknowledged that we are part of the Pacific family that with that comes the responsibility to act, to gracious requests from Tavalu and the relationship between our two nations.”

While acknowledging the challenges faced across the Pacific, Albanese said Tuvalu’s “very existence is being threatened by climate change”.

Funafuti atoll on Tuvalu is threatened by global warming induced sea rises.Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Tuvalu, a collection of nine low-lying atolls, is considered one of the countries that faces the biggest risks of being entirely depopulated because of rising sea levels linked to climate change.

As well as a new dedicated visa for Tuvaluans, the agreement includes a $16.9 million commitment from Australia to expand Tuvalu’s main island’s landmass by 6 per cent to help withstand sea level rise.

It will also see Australia commit to helping the Pacific nation in the event of emergencies including major natural disasters, health pandemics and military aggression.

It commits the countries to mutually agree any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other state or entity on security and defence-related matters in Tuvalu.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano described the announcement as “not just a milestone but a giant leap forward in our joint mission to ensure regional stability, sustainability and prosperity”.

In September, Tuvalu enshrined a new definition of statehood in its constitution stating the nation will remain in perpetuity, notwithstanding the impacts of climate change or anything else that results in the loss of its physical territory.

In 2019, Kevin Rudd proposed in an essay that Australia should offer citizenship to residents of the small Pacific nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru if climate change rendered their home island uninhabitable, in exchange for control of their seas, Exclusive Economic Zones, and fisheries.

“Under this arrangement, Australia would also become responsible for the relocation over time of the exposed populations of these countries [totalling less than 75,000 people altogether] to Australia where they would enjoy the full rights of Australian citizens,” Mr Rudd wrote.

The suggestion was rejected by Tuvalu’s then-prime minister Enele Sopoaga, who told the ABC Rudd’s vision amounted to a form of neo-colonialism.

“The days of that type of imperial thinking are over,” he said.

The United States has hammered out so-called shared government “grand compacts” in the Pacific with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, as has New Zealand with Niue and the Cook Islands.

In a submission to a government inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations, Australian National University international relations expert Professor John Blaxland recommended that an Australian compact should offer citizenship should life on the islands become untenable.

More to come.

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