IF, LIKE ME, you have very few better things to do with your time, you may have noticed the humble Australian white ibis going through an image makeover in the last four years. It has transformed from being considered a nuisance in the city, reviled and despised as a dirty and smelly menace of the commons, to a kind of cult hero – a re-imagining that emerged from meme culture, where ibises are mascots of trashiness, icons of the self-deprecating and ironic humour of aligning oneself with things associated with literal garbage.
In February 2018, the Australian ‘blogservational humour’ site Brown Cardigan posted an Instagram story of an ibis walking along a Sydney sidewalk, accompanied by the first few saccharine lines of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ (‘Making my way downtown, walking fast, faces pass and I’m homebound’). The bird’s long-legged strut and feathers the colour of dirty snow gave it the look of a businessman hustling between meetings. Just a few months earlier, the ibis very nearly topped The Guardian’s 2017 poll for Australia’s favourite bird, with the results announced around the same time some legend started a Kickstarter campaign for an inflatable ibis pool float just in time for summer. Meanwhile, 7 News reported on the trend of Gold Coast schoolies getting as their first tattoos a cartoon of a ciggy-smoking ibis. An ad for the ABC this year had comedian Sam Simmons praising ABC presenter Yumi Stynes as a ‘beautiful ibis sitting on the bin of hope’.
About a quarter of NSW’s white ibis population is now living in Sydney. It is nearly impossible to walk through the urban landscape without seeing them harassing picnickers or sipping on ‘bin juice’, and Threskiornis molucca has acquired new nicknames: bin chicken, trash turkey, disgusting longbeak, detritus drake, or more class-coded terms like Bankstown bin-diver and Parramatta parakeet. Every day, 44 per cent of the population forages at nearby landfills – photos at the Australian Museum show thousands of ibis crawling over a mountain of garbage at a tip on the outskirts of Sydney. They have become such a pest that in some suburbs they are now lethally managed, with a favoured technique requiring rangers to spray ibis eggs with cooking oil to prevent them from hatching.
But just a few decades ago, there were no white ibis on Australian city streets.
SINCE THE EARLY 1980s, University of New South Wales river and waterbird expert Professor Richard Kingsford has been leading an annual aerial survey to monitor water flows and bird numbers in eastern Australia’s marshes and wetlands. His conservative estimate of the loss of habitat since colonisation is around 70 per cent. Most of this has affected the Murray-Darling Basin, where bird numbers have collapsed due to the combined effects of drought, damming, the over-allocation of water for irrigation, and urban sprawl – all of which has lead to ‘catastrophic’ changes to the river system.
In 2007, Professor Kingsford told the ABC that the survey did not find a single waterbird in the northern region of the Macquarie Marshes, north of Dubbo. ‘It was heartbreaking,’ he said. Nearly ten years later, after the survey had the worst findings in its three-decade history, Professor Kingsford explained how he had witnessed waterbird numbers decline from an average of twenty thousand birds from more than twenty species to just six hundred birds from nine species. Ibises are ubiquitous now because they have been pushed into cities and forced to adapt to urban life – where they have set up huge breeding colonies in abundant open spaces, such as golf courses and parks. For the adaptation and survival of every species like the bin chicken, there is the local extinction of many others.
Viewed this way, ibises are climate refugees, visitors from an unsettled world that refuses to be ignored. Whenever I see ibises, I wonder whether they are so loathed and ridiculed because they are a daily reminder of these environmental crises and our role in creating them. As we speed further into the Anthropocene, an epoch of human-induced global catastrophe, the horizon of possible futures for all species narrows to the fate of just one, and the ibis starts to look like a harbinger of things to come.
Every year, about twenty-six million people are displaced by natural disasters, with around twenty-two million of these caused by climate- and weather-related events, a figure expected to increase over the coming decades as climate change exacerbates existing threats like food security, poverty and rapid urbanisation. Most of this forced migration will be contained within borders, with people fleeing but later returning to their homes. However, millions more will cross into the uncertain and legally fraught territory of international law, where there is no such thing as a ‘climate change refugee’ under the 1951 refugee convention and where they face significant protection gaps. It is inevitable that Australia – located in ‘disaster alley’ of the Asia-Pacific region, according to former US Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Sherri Goodman – will receive some of these millions within the next few decades, particularly as low-lying Pacific Island nations are rendered uninhabitable by rising seas.
Australia’s response to this ongoing disaster is difficult to foresee. Immigration policy and politics seem to become more contested and fraught each year, with a turn towards offshore detention, forced returns and the steady intensification of anti-migrant rhetoric. And this is to say nothing of the long-standing political deadlock on climate policy. Even so, there have been glimpses of possible alternatives – particularly a small program that sought to address some of these imperatives, one that ran with little fanfare but in the coming decade could be seen as either a model for future action, or a futile attempt from a more sanguine past.
SPEAKING DOWN THE phone from Brisbane, midway through the hour-long commute to her office at Griffith University’s Logan campus, it’s clear why Anne-Maree Moody is so suited to her job as a student welfare officer. She is discussing her five years as a placement officer, from 2009 to 2014, for a group of nursing students from Kiribati, a small nation of thirty-three low-lying coral atolls floating between PNG and Hawaii in the central Pacific, and her role in ensuring they stayed on track and that their academic and social needs were taken care of. As the point of contact for the first-ever group of students from a country with barely any domestic economy to speak of, where youth unemployment is around 80 per cent and half the population experiences extreme poverty, Moody describes the role as having been 24/7.
She has the endearing habit of referring to me, basically a stranger, as ‘darl’ and ‘sweetheart’, with bonhomie that seems neither forced nor insincere. At one point she stops to order a ‘white-chocolate-mocha-grande-double-shot-skinny and no cream’ from a drive-thru coffee shop, and also calls the server ‘darl’. She casually mentions that the students called – and still call – her ‘Mum’, and also text to wish her a happy birthday four years after their contact ended – something that doesn’t surprise me, given the filial respect she evokes.
‘Initially, it was a huge big ask for them,’ she says. ‘None of them had seen a washing machine, none of them had seen what a train or a tram was, so there was a lot of adjusting.’
The students were under her care as part of the Kiribati–Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI), a $20.8 million pilot program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through AusAID to provide scholarships for ninety Kiribati school graduates to train as nurses in Australia. Perhaps no other country is as emblematic of climate change as the Republic of Kiribati. Sitting just a few metres above sea level at its highest point, the small nation is considered one of the most susceptible in the world to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding and drought. Kiribati is routinely profiled in the media as a sinking nation, in reports that show sandbags being walled up around homes to stop the encroaching Pacific.
But Kiribati is also dealing with more mundane and less-publicised issues threatening its survival. For one, nearly half the country’s hundred thousand citizens live in the capital, South Tarawa, which is only about thirty kilometres long and 450 metres wide at its widest point. Arable crop production and available land has gradually diminished, and the traditional diet has been replaced by imported foods, so that half the population is now obese. Population density in South Tarawa is as much as triple that of Tokyo, and rapid urbanisation has exacerbated so-called ‘brown agenda issues’ of pollution, clean drinking water and solid-waste management. The island – already prone to periods of drought – draws its potable water from a shallow groundwater lens floating on a denser saline layer, meaning it is extremely susceptible to overconsumption, contamination and being wiped out by rising seas. In short, the nation will be uninhabitable long before the atolls are underwater.
KANI was a joint Australian and Kiribati Government program, designed in part to enable what former Kiribati President Anote Tong called ‘migrating with dignity’. At its core is the idea that the people of Kiribati, known as I-Kiribati, could earn internationally recognised qualifications and training that would allow them to migrate ahead of time, establishing expatriate communities in other countries before climate change claims their homelands. The idea challenges the notion of migration as a last-resort option, and instead encourages pre-emptive and voluntary movement. KANI married this objective with the global need for qualified nurses.
Thousands of people applied for KANI when it opened to the first cohort of thirty students, and by the time the program concluded in 2014, a rigorous selection process meant just ninety students had been accepted. These students undertook a four-month preparation course in Tarawa that included English classes, culture and lifestyle lessons, and general academic preparation skills, and had to pass a final English test before they were even sure they would arrive in Australia. They then had to complete a TAFE diploma before commencing study at Griffith University. Still, the transition to Australia – starting with the Queensland language barrier – was full of daunting experiences. Traditional life in Kiribati is family-oriented and patriarchal, and there is a constant presence of the large extended family. For the students who stayed with host families, the first night alone in their own bedroom, surrounded by the pervasive silence of Australian suburbia, only amplified their homesickness. But it was undoubtedly the cohesion of the KANI students formed in classes and in share-houses that contributed to the program’s success, along with the several hundred I-Kiribati who had already resettled in the South Brisbane and Logan area to form a relatively small but close-knit expatriate community. Griffith University School of Nursing and Midwifery lecturer Hazel Rands thought that even among Logan’s many international groups, the Kiribati kids stood out.
‘It was almost like they all considered each other family,’ she tells me. ‘They just really endeared themselves to us and taught us how important it was to have family connection and support when they got here.’
It didn’t take long for the quality of this family support to reveal itself. One priority of the initiative was to have a mostly female gender mix to offset the patriarchal society in Kiribati.
‘Well, darling, you know – they all got married,’ Anne-Maree Moody says, pausing to imply what naturally happened next. The funniest thing about this whole period was reading about the pregnancies (which, to be clear, was half the KANI female students) filtered through the bureaucratic language of official DFAT reports. ‘This must be addressed programmatically to decrease program costs,’ one requested, as a matter of urgency. I could almost see the authors, pearls clutched, reporting that higher rates had only been seen among ‘females trained under the Kiribati Marine Training Centre program, where females were at sea with male seamen and three-quarters of them became pregnant. Those that did not have pregnancies had obtained safe contraception [implants] prior to embarking.’
Hazel Rands says she quickly learnt they were working with a very different outlook on young parenthood compared to most domestic students: ‘Honestly, there was probably only half a dozen who had babies and it slowed down their progression.’
The students had already been back home to Kiribati for a five-week clinical placement within the local health system. Having seen the options, who wouldn’t choose to have their baby in an Australian hospital? Childcare duties were shared between members of the share-house, or between couples. Remittances – which account for 15 per cent of Kiribati’s GDP – began to flow back home so that mums or aunties could fly over and help with the childrearing.
‘They were just very organised around it,’ Rands says. ‘There was never a point we were thinking, “Oh my goodness we’re going to have to tell these kids to stop having babies”. Our students have a baby and they take a year off. Whereas they had a baby and took maybe a couple of weeks off and we’re going, “Oh, you’ll have to have a medical clearance to go back to work,” and they’re like, “I just had a baby – I’m not sick.” It never made any difference, it was like having a baby is just a normal life event.’
By June 2014 there were twenty-nine full-time and twenty-three part-time KANI graduates employed in Australia – the last official figures kept by DFAT. Rands estimates that less than 5 per cent of the group did not complete some sort of degree or qualification, and that sixty-eight students earned degrees. Even though no employment targets were set for the initiative, the department said this was ‘lower than what the Australian government expected’. The program was not funded past its designated period, and KANI was quietly shelved at the end of the year.
FOUR YEARS ON, and it is clear those involved in KANI still have a great respect and admiration for the achievements of the students. Anne-Maree Moody says she still remembers their caring side: ‘I appreciate everything out of Kiribati… I was nursing my husband with motor neurone disease, he couldn’t communicate or anything, and doing that at the same time as working with the kids. In turn they were very accommodating with me and understanding about what I was going through. I’m proud of what the kids have done.’
KANI graduates moved around the country, to such locations as Broome, Bundaberg Mackay and Cairns, even up to Port Douglas and overseas to New Zealand. Moody says they still travel in groups, so that when one Kiribati nurse heads to a regional community, five will soon join them. ‘They’re just like little ants,’ she said. ‘And because of their empathy and work ethic, it got to the point that people embraced the Kiribati students because [employers] would meet one and say, “If she’s gonna be like you, hey, we want a hundred of you.”’
There were also outcomes not even considered in KANI’s original design, or even picked up by organisers until after the program had concluded. Respect and care for parents and grandparents as they age is an integral part of I-Kiribati culture, a responsibility that falls on the eldest son but is shared by other siblings and younger members of the community. Typically, according to Hazel Rands, domestic nursing graduates see working in the sector as a job of last resort, or as a role to take into retirement. There was no such stigma from the KANI students. ‘That was a big light-bulb moment for us,’ Rands says. ‘They actually saw the opportunity to work in a nursing home or an aged-care facility as a privilege.’
DFAT commissioned an independent review into KANI in its penultimate year, citing ‘serious concerns’ about the low rate of graduates and the need to steer decisions about its future. While the review concluded the program was ‘bold and innovative’, it also complained about the high cost per scholarship and about the management of the program by Griffith University – although it said this improved in KANI’s later years. ‘I sat in with the review they did, when they came up and grilled everybody, if you like,’ Rands says. ‘We really felt after that they hadn’t taken away what was so positive about it.’ For one thing, the department assessed the initiative at a time when the state’s demand for nursing graduates was at a periodic low. Instead of the usual two months, Rands estimated that a third of Queensland students were still looking for a graduate position more than a year after completing their degrees. It was also Queensland Health policy to hire domestic nurses first.
‘I think the thing that was frustrating was there was almost no worth put in the fact they were happy to work in aged-care facilities,’ Rands says, adding that she pointed out they were filling a huge area of need given the ageing population. ‘But that was given very little credit.’
A DFAT spokesperson maintains that: ‘Labour mobility is an integral part of Australia’s commitment to step up our efforts in the Pacific and promote greater economic co-operation and integration in the region.’ In KANI’s place, the department has committed $43.6 million over eight years to sponsor technical and vocational training at the Kiribati Institute of Technology. However, an independent review raised serious questions about the underlying program logic, particularly for the ‘invalid’ assumption that training in Kiribati would lead to employment and labour mobility without additional support. Rands says the school still regularly fields enquiries from the I-Kiribati community and from the Kiribati government about the KANI program.
SOON AFTER TAKING the portfolio of Climate Change Minister, New Zealand’s Green Party leader James Shaw said in December 2017 that the government was considering creating the world’s first humanitarian visa for climate refugees, an experimental policy that would grant a hundred Pacific Islanders residency in New Zealand. The idea is controversial, as the international legal consensus continues to be that existing refugee protection frameworks do not cover climate-displaced people. The problem is, in brief, one of causation: although climate change exists as a system, it cannot be measured at the individual level. The international community has never been great at preventing disasters, but still, there have been attempts to come up with other response frameworks that encompass this multi-causal nature of climate movement, from rising sea levels in the Pacific to drought and famine in Africa. The Nansen Initiative, an intergovernmental project lead by Norway and Sweden from 2011 to 2015, and its successor, the Platform on Disaster Displacement – with Australia as a founding member – have both offered a toolbox of policies and strategies to allow states to withstand the effects of climate change.
As for Australia, journalist James Button has described how a conscious effort of the Abbott government in 2013 was to quietly gut the Department of Immigration and move some of its key responsibilities to other departments. ‘For the first time since 1945 no Commonwealth government department has the word “immigration” in its name,’ Button writes in ‘Dutton’s dark victory’ for The Monthly. In an early speech, the man overseeing this transformation, Department of Home Affairs chief Michael Pezzullo, said that Australia was entering its third immigration revolution, following its postwar nation-building focus in 1945 and the switch to a skills-based program in 1985. The new focus was the ‘migration of skilled workers living abroad on a temporary basis, and not seeking necessarily to settle at all’. Recruitment of these highly skilled ‘mobile global citizens’ would, according to Pezzullo, ensure a strong economy. Temporary workers – around nine hundred thousand of them – now make up 10 per cent of the workforce. Of course, having mobile global citizens is a lot more tenuous when there is no home country for these migrants to return to.
On its website, DFAT proclaims that Kiribati is one of nine Pacific Island countries participating in the Seasonal Worker Programme, offering a steady supply of horticultural workers to meet harvest needs in northern Australia. Currently, most fruit picking in Australia is done by backpackers on holiday working visas – a ‘precarious’ workforce that is ‘vulnerable to exploitation’, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman – often contracted through unscrupulous labour-hire companies. By requiring employers to meet certain regulatory conditions to take part, proponents of the Seasonal Worker Programme say it offers an improvement from the industry status quo. But as The Guardian and the ABC have reported, a Senate inquiry last year heard grim examples of workers’ exploitation in the program, with the worst cases likened to ‘modern-day slavery’. The inquiry uncovered instances where church groups and charities were effectively subsidising employers and farmers by providing basic food and clothing so indentured workers didn’t die. Social workers in Bundaberg told The Guardian the exploitation had unsettling similarities to the history of Northern Queensland sugar farming and the practice known as blackbirding, when Australian traders transported more than sixty-two thousand South Sea Islanders to work as ‘sugar slaves’ between 1863 and 1904. One in four of those transported – around fifteen thousand people – were estimated to have died in Australia, and were buried in unmarked graves.
In negotiations over their future, the Pacific Islands are still haunted by the spectre of forced relocation. The British tried to tackle rapid population growth in the 1930s by moving seven hundred I-Kiribati to the remote and uninhabited Phoenix Islands, where they starved. The British also relocated the small Banaban community from Kiribati to Fiji in 1945 to make way for phosphate mining that later supplied half the colony’s revenue. The phosphate ran out in 1979, and Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law director Jane McAdams recounts how, seventy years later, ‘Those people today still talk about a very strong sense of injustice, a feeling that they had no say in what happened to them. And this is the risk: if we don’t have participatory frameworks and clear consent, we are going to perpetuate those cycles of injustice.’ Before it was an offshore prison camp for refugees, Nauru was decimated for its phosphate by Australia, Britain and New Zealand. In 2003, then Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer revived an idea first floated by Robert Menzies (and rejected by Nauruans) that the population should be forcibly relocated, saying the Pacific nation had ‘no viable future’.
This is the PR victory of global capitalism: the notion that instead of being forcibly moved to phosphate islands in the holds of ships, people are voluntarily coming to cut the sugar cane or pick bananas for the table. Any harm that befalls them is a result of choices freely made – mere state-sanctioned exploitation and faulty regulation, rather than slave-traders and plantation masters. Neoliberalism sails in on the back of colonialism to offer the moral cover of a benign sovereign, bringing fatty food and sickly goods and extracting the resources it needs. KANI offered a different pathway – albeit one still rooted in neoliberalism. Time and again, Pacific Islanders have said in no uncertain terms they want to retain their homelands and their culture. The program offered, for a small few, the chance to migrate with dignity.
‘Moving them over here in a group of thirty at a time worked really well, because they didn’t feel isolated and they felt they could maintain and retain their culture and still be Kiribati but live in Australia and slowly assimilate,’ Hazel Rands says. ‘That’s the really concerning thing for everyone who lives there, which is: if they are forcibly relocated to somewhere else, they will lose what is their inherent culture and what is uniquely Kiribati.’
EIGHT YEARS AFTER the birth of Christ, the Roman poet Ovid targeted an unidentified enemy with his elegiac curse poem Ibis, using the Egyptian waterbird as their pseudonym. Among the litany of maledictions he wishes inflicted on this ibis, Ovid devotes a whole section to ‘The Denial of Benefits’:
Exiled, wander helpless, across the alien thresholds,
seek out scant nourishment with a trembling mouth…
…May you be always pitiable, and yet let no one pity:
let men and women take delight in your adversity.
In June 2017, the front page of The Daily Telegraph reads ‘Welcome to Chinatown’ in response to ABS figures showing a growing Asian population in parts of Sydney. In Victoria, Prime Minister Turnbull and others blame Sudanese gangs for a supposed crime wave and for white Australians being too afraid to go out at night. A year earlier, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had retroactively questioned the decision to allow Lebanese refugees into Australia. In these controversies, the provenance of these people is forgotten: there’s no talk of the violent civil war in South Sudan and genocide in Darfur, or Lebanese civil war. Will future climate migrants be treated any different? And still, the opinions of ordinary people remain generous, with 87 per cent of those surveyed for the Scanlon Foundation social-cohesion study saying they support immigration – only a slight drop since 2007. Maybe there is hope. The ibises are moving because their water is being stolen; other people will soon follow.
After hearing of KANI on National Public Radio, Lara O’Brien, a postgraduate student at the University of Kansas, flew to Brisbane in 2010 to interview ten I-Kiribati students. The interviews are an insight into the state of mind of new arrivals: they describe their joy upon reaching their new home and the challenge of starting fresh, the alienation of strange tongues, their homesickness and missing their family and culture. One of the students spoke of flying over Australia for the first time, having a glimpse out the small window towards the city lights below – a place of roads, buildings, ‘happiness everywhere’ and ‘sort of like you’re in heaven, but it’s just…different’.
‘We think we entered some imaginary world,’ the student told O’Brien.
They saw what we all sometimes perceive walking around the gleaming streets of Sydney: a shimmer that obscures the empty heart of late capitalism, behind which an official doctrine holds that sea walls can be put up forever, and boats and time can permanently be turned back. This is Australia as an oneiric landscape of coal and coral and finance and feathers. And then you see the ibis sitting there atop a bin, a gentle reminder, a totem dragging you from this dreamscape and back into the present.