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Education-based migration improves resilience of low-lying island states by preemptively decreasing population and creating remittances.



The Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI) was an effort to address climate change imperatives, rapid population growth and urbanization, and youth unemployment. The main objective of KANI was to educate Kiribati youth to gain Australian or international employment in the nursing sector, which faces a significant shortage. Kiribati youth were able to voluntarily migrate to reduce the total stress on the Kiribati resilience infrastructure and diversify the remittance base. This proposal would expand (1) the number of eligible island and host states, (2) the number of professions and education programs eligible for scholarships, and (3) the total number of sponsored individuals. The proposal will also detail expansions and revisions to KANI so that it may best increase the resilience of low-lying islands and the well-being of their peoples.

Small island states such as Kiribati, Tonga, Fiji, and the Maldives face loss of land, infrastructure, and economic efficiency due to rising sea levels. The proposal would preemptively and voluntarily emigrate individuals and equip them with the skills to excel in their host countries. This program would increase the capacity of the infrastructure of the small island states, bolster education and employment for young professionals, and generate remittances for family members on the islands.

Reducing stress on infrastructure like energy, transportation, and natural disaster protection, in addition to increasing capital flow, would greatly increase small island state resilience. Host countries would also benefit, as the program would target professions and regions of underemployment within the host nation. Efficient and preemptive migration, rather than widespread immigration, benefits each nation by preventing reactive displacement from the island, which forces hosts to accept a much larger number of less trained and less assimilated refugees.

What actions do you propose?

I.              Introduction

Island nations are drowning. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are home to 65 million people. Many SIDS, each with unique cultures and proud heritages, are nearing their breaking points. In the Caribbean, the Bahamas faces drastic challenges with food security, water scarcity, and energy reliability because of climate change. In the Pacific, islands like Kiribati must contend with irreversible land loss and plummeting economic productivity. In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, the lowest nation on Earth, may disappear within 30 years, rendering its nearly 400,000 citizens stateless. The low elevation and high exposure of SIDS leave them inherently susceptible to rising seas and intensifying storms. These islands will continue to suffer until their resilience and adaptive capacity for climate change improve.

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The Da Yu Project is an American non-profit organization dedicated to policy solutions for climate-based migration. The Project recognizes that early action and increased resilience are the most effective ways to reduce the number of people displaced by the environmental. We also recognize the need for responsible and humane migration. Preemptive migration is an adaptation technique that can improve the lives of individuals who desire migration as well as those who remain on the island, allowing islanders to migrate with dignity.

We propose the Island Nation Education and Labor Program (INELP), a job training migration scheme based on the Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI). INELP would improve the resiliency of island nations by giving scholarships to young students, improving infrastructure capacity, and increasing economic security.


II.            Proposing Labor-Based Migration

Overview of the Island Nation Education and Labor Program:

  1. Individuals under the age of 25 in participating SIDS apply for entrance to INELP. Program staff will test applicants on their intelligence, technical skills, and language skills. Scholarships will be awarded based on aptitude and individual need.
  2. The application process will include an essay describing the impact of climate change on the applicant’s personal life and native land.
  3. Individuals may apply to different programs depending on their job interest and test results. Fields such as nursing, civil engineering, environmental science, and emergency response are perennially underfilled labor markets that also improve climate resilience and disaster management.
  4. Exact scholarship numbers and fields of study for each country will be determined through a bilateral development assistance program between host countries and SIDS.
  5. Recipients will enter an extensive training program in their home country for language and technical skills.
  6. INELP staff and host nations’ immigration services will arrange entrance to universities and training programs in host countries.
  7. Students will train in their respective programs and with the help of INELP student coordinators gain employment in their fields of study within the host countries.


In 2006, Australia created the Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative. KANI provided scholarships to the youth of Kiribati. Recipients attended nursing school in Australia and upon graduation were able to stay in Australia, return to Kiribati, or seek employment internationally. This distinguished KANI from the Australia Awards Pacific Scholarships, a program that sponsors students from Pacific islands but requires them to return home after graduation. While KANI and INELP are education programs, they should primarily be thought of as migration schemes and labor programs that bolster the markets of host countries and the resilience of developing nations.

Thousands of individuals applied to KANI during each cycle, with only 30 students chosen for scholarships to attend the nursing programs at the Technical and Further Education College and Griffith University. Testing consisted of several exams that assessed the intelligence, skills, and English proficiency of applicants. Admitted students then took a four-month training program in Kiribati to improve their English and studying skills, as they frequently cited those issues as being their biggest worries. The students also participated in transitional camps and stayed with host families for their first three months in Australia, strengthening their knowledge of the local language, geography, and customs. Students worked with KANI staff members and Student Contact Officers for academic and cultural support. All of these measures helped the students assimilate responsibly and efficiently without being overly burdensome on the host region or losing their own culture.

An independent review of KANI concluded the program’s benefits outweighed its costs, but that dramatic expansion and some management adjustments would make it more successful and cost-effective. One of the most frequently cited problems of KANI was its cost intensity, averaging over $225,000 USD per licensed nurse produced. KANI was particularly expensive because of Australian education costs, the small size of the program, and mismanagement of exit points and cultural barriers. Student pregnancy, inadequate English and technical skills, and students repeatedly failing classes also contributed to the costs and inefficiencies of KANI.

INELP would take the following measures to make operations more efficient and successful than KANI:

  1. Better informing students of the benefits, conditions and obligations of the scholarship and the social and cultural issues likely to impact their studies, this reduces the failure rate and improves student awareness
  2. Improved English skill screening and training for students who fall short of requisite fluency but show initiative and promise
  3. Sex education incorporated into the training program, instructing students on safe sex and cultural norms of their host countries
  4. Stricter rules for expected academic performance and better enforced exit points (e.g. failure benchmarks for removal from the program)
  5. Increased job placement assistance
  6. Increased engagement of program alumni to help students struggling with language fluency, cultural adjustment, and technical skills
  7. Expanding the training program to encompass more professions, better aligning prospective students with their strengths and interests, thereby improving success rates


III.         Migration as Adaptation and Resilience

According to the UNFCCC, “adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts.” It is crucial that vulnerable island nations adapt and increase their resilience, so the stresses of climate change—like sea level rise and resource scarcity—do not topple the infrastructure entirely. To do that, states must (1) increase the amount of stress infrastructure can take and/or (2) decrease the amount of stress that is put on it. The below graph plots the resilience of states to climate change.

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The idea of preemptive migration as “early action” is simple. The infrastructure and resources on small island states cannot bear their current populations, a fact that threatens mass displacement and loss of life and cultural heritage. Rather than spending billions of dollars to improve the infrastructure or supply aid to these countries, the Da Yu Project believes adaptation through preemptive migration could be a cost-effective way to increase capacity and inject stability.

Population reduction improves infrastructure capacity. Remittances reduce susceptibility to hazards because of the large influx of cash they create, countering the low capital flow and purchasing power in SIDS. Using the above graph’s analysis for state resilience to climate change, preemptive migration schemes may move countries out of the vulnerability zone. The below graph represents the impact of INELP: decreasing the stress on infrastructure and natural resources while also improving capacity through remittances and skilled labor.



Proactively moving people from SIDS before climate change forces migration is the ultimate anticipatory measure. It allows islanders to migrate with dignity, establishing a community abroad that helps preserve native culture and ease the transition for future migrants. Program participants generate remittances that improve the quality of life for those still on the island and alleviate the pressure on the infrastructure by reducing the native population.


IV.          Strengthening Early Warning and Action Responses to Climate Hazards

INELP helps communities anticipate climate hazards and serves as an early warning and action response to environmental disasters in several ways.

INELP will train islanders in fields such as civil engineering, environmental science, sustainable agriculture, green tech, nursing, and emergency response. These fields increase hazard anticipation and response by increasing the regional expertise within the disaster mitigation sector. Graduates could apply their life experiences on vulnerable SIDS and their new skills to build infrastructure and implement disaster planning measures that serve as early action responses to environmental disasters. Additionally, due to their close relationships within their home countries, graduates will likely relay their expertise to their families and home communities, thus assisting the mitigation measures on the local level.

The application process for INELP will involve writing an essay about the impact of climate change on the applicant’s life and nation. Data from these at-risk nations can be extremely difficult and expensive to gather. This collection of firsthand accounts would be enormously valuable to sociological and infrastructure studies. It will also provide insight into practices that aggravate or mitigate damage from environmental disasters, thus identifying regional best practices, and unaddressed vulnerabilities. Personal accounts will illuminate gaps in public awareness on how to prepare for, identify, and respond to environmental crises. This process can also function as a sort of “early warning system” by allowing individuals to directly involve the international community about the environmental turmoil they face. The application would also involve a mandatory workshop on recognizing the early warning signs of disaster and the practical ways to prepare and respond to them.

Migration may be the best long-term response to irreversible climate change. In the short term, remittances from the labor-migration schemes will generate large amounts of income that islanders can use to prepare for and recover from disasters. Climate financing is a very difficult task, especially for developing nations with little capital flow. INELP provides a model for at-risk individuals to improve their well-being before and after disasters. Remittances are vital for developing countries. SIDS are especially dependent on them, for their traditional forms of economic production disappear with climate change. The chart below lists the remittances percentage of GDP for some SIDS that would participate in INELP.

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By increasing the amount of remittances—which are currently a large and stable source of economic production—INELP would inherently increase the nations’ ability to finance warning and response infrastructure. Resilience and response measures are too expensive for many island nations to institute. INELP would encourage more remittances and increase the total amount of mitigation and disaster-response projects available to SIDS. SIDS could also adopt an optional system in which recipients agree to send part of their salary to the island to be used for country-wide early warning and response.

In conclusion, this proposal advocates the creation and implementation of an education and labor migratory scheme to improve the resilience of at-risk island states.

Who will take these actions?

INELP would be implemented by the United Nations’ Anticipate, Absorb, Reshape program. Funding would come primarily from host countries and the United Nations itself. The Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative was funded entirely by the Australian government and run through the Australian Agency for International Development. Financial assistance from the United Nations or a similar international organization could possibly cover the costs of the program, depending on the desired size. As with Australia, it is expected that developed nations would also fund the program, as it benefits their underfilled labor markets, provides humanitarian assistance to close-by nations, and reduces the risk of widespread immigration in the future. On the more local level, INELP staff and governmental workers will coordinate with specific universities and training programs to provide assistance and education.

Where will these actions be taken?

INELP would be eligible to individuals living in small island developing states around the world. The majority of these countries are in the Caribbean and South Pacific (see graphic below).

INELP would be designed to emphasize how to successfully integrate and train migrants from island nations, helping to ease execution but leave implementation flexible to different host countries’ immigration and labor laws.

Participation in INELP would obviously be voluntary. However, INELP would have minimum requirements for the educational quality and job prospects or placement assistance offered by a host country, such that participants are adequately educated and have a significant opportunity for post-program employment. Any nation that misrepresents its capacity or willingness to educate migrants to INELP standards would be subject to removal from the program. Audits of the host countries will be critical, not only to maintain accountability but also to improve the program itself.

What are other key benefits?

In addition to the advancements in infrastructure, capacity, and resilience on island states, employment in host countries would also increase. KANI targeted nursing, which was an underfilled sector in the Australian economy (indeed, there is a global nursing shortage). INELP would similarly help address employment shortages.

INELP would also bring the stories and cultures of otherwise isolated island nations to the host countries. The vibrant heritage of island nations would be lost without planned migration. Increased diversity and cultural preservation are certainly key benefits, but perhaps even more importantly those who migrate from sinking islands can help spread awareness of the reality and urgency of climate change.

Lastly, a successful INELP could stand as support for the proposition that proactively assisting climate migrants is cheaper, more humane, and more beneficial to migrants and hosts alike than reacting to disasters as they continue to grow in frequency and magnitude.

What are the proposal’s costs?

KANI ended up costing roughly $14.4 million USD, and 84 students from Kiribati took advantage of the program (64 of whom became registered nurses). The high cost of over $225,000 per registered nurse was one of the most frequently cited critiques of KANI, but there were several factors contributing to the program’s expenses. Australia is the most expensive country in the world for international study, so an education sponsorship program in Australia is not reflective of the costs of a similar program in any other country. KANI required significant investment in catching I-Kiribati students up to the English proficiency, cultural adjustment, and general educational background needed to succeed in an Australian nursing program. These costs diminish over time as an established program and growing body of alumni streamline the adjustment process. Further, better capitalization of existing facilities and increased international cooperation will help reduce those costs.

A pilot program that serves as proof of concept and helps save future costs could be operated for as little as $350 million. If the per-student averaged out to $200,000 (a modest reduction), a startup fund of $350 million could enable training for as many as 1,700 island nation residents, which in turn would generate a significant alumni base and remittance source, and leave $10 million for flexible overhead. Reduced to $175,000 per student and preserving the $10 million buffer, the program could assist over 1,900 islanders.

In short, the main cost of the program will be the education and living expenses of the participants. The more efficient and larger the program becomes, the lower these costs can be expected to get (to a point). The return on investment for host countries, as discussed throughout this proposal, is the acquisition of workers trained in underserved fields. Further, the cost of handling forced migration from small island nations would be astronomically high.

Time line

The more time spent without taking proactive measures, the more difficult it will be for island nations to cope with deteriorating conditions. Conversely, setting the foundation early allows for rapid onset of the program’s knock-on benefits, such as trial-and-error adjustment of program implementation and generating remittances and alumni.

This program should be planned and implemented as soon as feasibly possible. With the acquisition of startup funds and training of staff, a pilot program could be launched as early as 2018.

Related proposals

Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative (“KANI”). See analysis; see also


Lea Shaw et al., Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative Independent Review (2014)

O’Brien, Lara K.“Migrating with Dignity”: A Study of the Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative (2013)

Farquar, Harriet. Migration with Diginity: Towards a New Zealand Response to Climate Change in the Pacific, 46 Victoria Univ. of Wellington L.Rev. 29, 32,-issue-1/Farquhar.pdf

UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition

Doyle, Jesse. A sinking atoll nation and quarter million dollar nurses: where to next for the Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI)? Devpolicy Blog (April 9, 2014).

Treanor, Sarah and Katy Watson. “Tonga facing up to rising sea levels,” BBC (Dec. 1, 2015).

Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Paradise in the Maldives--But for How Long?” Newsweek (Jan. 14, 2017).

“Forced displacement last option, says Tuvalu PM,” RadioNZ (Dec. 14, 2016).,-says-tuvalu-pm

“Australia the most expensive country for education,” HSBC report (Sept. 10, 2014).

Albert, Simon et al. Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands. Environmental Research Letters, Vol 11, No. 5 (May 6, 2016).

Map showing location and number of small island developing states