Ongoing issues of overpopulation, economic inequality, domestic violence, climate change, geopolitics, illiteracy, and many health challenges are worrying to many Pacific Islanders. For young emerging leaders from the Pacific who formed a delegation to the Australian-Pacific Emerging Leaders’ Summit, they are especially worrying.
A joint initiative by the Pacific Conference of Churches and Micah Australia brought 34 delegates representing 13 island nations to Canberra to participate in the Summit. The meeting also included delegates from the Pacific diaspora communities in Australia, First Nations people of Australia, and other Australian representatives.
Prior to the summit, the delegates participated in a study conducted by Micah Australia and the Pacific Conference of Churches. From this research the three priority areas identified were climate change and natural hazards, education and youth unemployment, and improving access to water and sanitation. Two key principles of self-determination and inclusion were also included.
The findings saw that 94.4% of Pacific delegates rated self-determination as an issue of high and extreme importance. 85% of the youth surveyed rated “supporting people with disabilities as” as an issue of high importance.
“Persons with disabilities are often forgotten when it comes to decision making and their rights are continuously violated and swept under the carpet endless times,” said Nafi Bai, a wheelchair user and advocate for Persons with Disabilities. “Accessibility, qualification mismatch, and stigma are probably the three main challenges that are faced by Persons with Disabilities in the Pacific,” he continued.
Almost all, 94% of the delegates, ranked climate change as an issue of extreme importance to their communities. About 92.6% also ranked ‘preparing for natural disasters and their impact’ as an issue of high importance. Another delegate, Winton Herman from the Cook Islands stated: “As Pacific Islanders the ocean is part of our lifestyle, heritage, culture, and tradition…and the general health and overall care of the ocean is important for the future of our youth.” Taaitulagi Tuioti from Samoa shared the same sentiments, “[Climate change] affects culture, community and the ability to self-determine our own future”.
In their meetings with Parliamentarians during the summit, the Pacific youth passionately shared stories on how climate change affected their island homes and communities and called for support from the government.
Survey results also showed that youth unemployment and access to quality education were key concerns. Recent data from the International Labor Organization shows youth unemployment in the Pacific is at an estimated 23%, compared to a global average of 13%. There was also a call for education to be decolonised. “In Maohi Nui, we have access to education, but what kind of education?” said Tamatoa Tepuhiarii from Maohi Nui (French Polynesia), “Everyone is going to school but the education we receive is more for French people with more French references than our indigenous Maohi Nui education.”
Many delegates shared concerns that many of their education systems followed Western traditions and the curriculum lacked indigenous knowledge.
The third key priority as decided by 96% of the youth regarded water access, with delegates observing that clean water, toilets, and good hygiene would allow people to live healthy and dignified lives. Remwatia Notike from Kiribati noted, “In Kiribati we are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We suffer from water contamination as there is no fresh water for bathing since the water in our community is salty due to climate change. This has given people skin rashes and about 10-15 households line up in a queue everyday just to get fresh water for food and drinking water”.
As a group, the emerging leaders had a joint vision of seeing “healthy environment, empowered young people, and flourishing communities across the Pacific region. This is a vision that can only be realised in full when communities enjoy self-determination and with no one left behind”.
The Australian government recently announced a $900m aid increase to the Pacific region over the next four years. By meeting with Australian MPs, the delegation hopes that the stories and issues shared can be discussed in the Australian Parliament and more efficient deployment of the aid and grant resources towards climate resilience, supporting the economies of countries post-COVID, and creating more empowerment programs for women, girls and people with disabilities.