Climate-Induced Migration & the Compact of Free Association

Limitations and Opportunities for the Citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Introduction: Climate, Migration, and COFA

Well-documented ecological realities face the Republic of the Marshall Islands (“RMI”). The RMI is acutely vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding, heat, drought, storms, hurricanes, and the associated impacts on freshwater supplies. As such, many discussions concerning climate-induced migration (“CIM”) and the RMI have centered upon the risks associated with relatively near-term uninhabitability and the disruption of ecosystem services. At times, these have been discussed in tandem with socio-economic factors influencing the island’s fiscal dependencies and reconfiguring its citizens’ internal and international mobilities. The first segment of the Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project (“MICMP”/“Project”), for instance, sought to better understand Marshallese perceptions of the linkages between such climatic stressors and their migration within the RMI and to destinations in the United States (“US”).

While environmental dynamics are crucial to understanding Marshallese migrants’ decision-making, these factors also interact with a historical and contemporary legal landscape. This “lawscape” provides necessary context for achieving a more comprehensive understanding of the potential future(s) of climate-induced migrants, as well as enacting appropriate policies to meet the material and other needs along their full trajectory of possible migration decisions, including staying in place. The contamination and obliteration of Marshallese atolls, the long-term environmental dispossession and displacement of islanders, and the impact of the US military presence and foreign aid in the region—together with the legal frameworks that have facilitated these events and processes—are key to understanding the current state of migration and the future well-being of the Marshallese under conditions of climatic change. Of particular importance is the Compact of Free Association (“COFA”/“Compact”), the major bilateral agreement governing the relationship between the RMI and the US.

This policy brief explores the relationship between COFA and the Marshallese experience under the conditions of a changing climate and a documented increase in migration. It begins by providing a legal overview of the History of the Strategic Trust Territories of the Pacific and Nuclear Tests, as well as the COFA Compact Negotiations and the Nuclear Legacy. Following this, it focuses on key Migration Status information found within COFA, coupled with more general comments on Recent Migration Trends. The brief then reviews COFA and MICMP Research Findings, presenting the challenges and opportunities the Marshallese currently face within the RMI and in destination states (Hawai‘i, Washington, and Oregon) with respect to three indicators of well-being (Economic Conditions, Health and Health Care, and Education). This review is situated within the broader legal, policy, and academic literature. The brief concludes with comments on evolving legal provisions for the Marshallese and suggestions for further research.