ICAAD is supporting the Banaban community to bring global awareness to their human rights struggle. Their story of displacement and dispossession is largely unknown, and offers both localised policy challenges as well as important lessons for climate mobility policy. We have collaborated to create this policy brief in English and in Kiribati (above) and advocacy guide (below) which outlines key issues that the community has faced from the 20th century to the present, as well as recommendations for the governments of Fjii and Kiribati.
Where is Banaba and who lives there?
Banaba, or Ocean Island, is a high limestone phosphate atoll between the western-most edge of Kiribati and Nauru in the northern Pacific Ocean. The island is located approximately 400km from Kiribati and 300km from Nauru. It has historically been inhabited by the Banaban people – an Indigenous group with a distinct culture, and one of the few ethnicities in the Pacific that had individual titling of land. The Banaban people were forcibly displaced from the island in the mid-20th century due to the devastating impacts of phosphate mining.
How did phosphate mining begin on Banaba?
In the late 19th century, British colonial states in Australia and New Zealand were searching for phosphate – in high demand for agriculture to support growing settler populations.
In 1900, British prospectors found that Banaba had the highest-grade phosphate which could be used for superphosphate fertilizer. Britain annexed Banaba and incorporated it into its existing colonial protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Britain gave the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), equally owned by New Zealand, Australia, and Britain, exclusive rights to occupy the land to collect and export phosphate.
Why were Banabans displaced from their land?
The Banabans initially agreed to the quarrying of specific sites for mining, but the BPC ignored requests to limit the scale of mining and rehabilitate the land. By 1916, Banaba was formally included as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands as a British colony.
With the land becoming uninhabitable, British colonial authorities started planning to remove Banabans from Banaba to a new home which would be purchased using the proceeds of phosphate mining. In 1942, colonial authorities purchased Rabi Island in Fiji.
When did the forced displacement occur?
During World War II, many Banabans fled or were deported from Banaba by Japanese imperial forces. At the end of the war in 1945, the British and the BPC declared Banaba uninhabitable and forced Banabans to relocate to Rabi. The Banaban community arrived on Rabi to find an entirely undeveloped island that lacked basic services or housing.
What happened to Banaba during decolonisation?
Fiji gained independence in 1970. In 1975, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony was divided into two separate territories. In 1979, the Gilbert Islands territory became an independent nation under the name of Kiribati. In the mid-1970s, there was a parallel bid for Banaba’s own independence which was unsuccessful and Banaba was given to Kiribati. The Kiribati Constitution has special provisions to safeguard the rights of Banabans.
What was the impact of mining?
By 1979, all mining on Banaba stopped. 22 million tons of land was removed, and 90% of Banaba’s surface was stripped away. Mining activities cut down the landscape from 80 meters above sea level to only 20-30 meters above sea level – rendering the island more vulnerable to climate impacts including sea level rise and flooding.
Were Banabans ever compensated for the destruction of their home?
In 1965, the Banabans brought legal action against the UK and the BPC. It was one of the longest civil court cases in the UK, ending in 1979. The UK settled on an ex gratia payment which absolved them of legal obligations, and provided Banabans with 10 million Australian dollars regulated by the Banaban Settlement Act. This was significantly lower than the amount Banabans sought through court.
What is the situation on Banaba today?
A small population of approximately 300 people remains in Banaba today. The damage to the land is extensive, and ongoing neglect by the Kiribati and Fiji governments has led to persistent human rights issues.
As a direct result of mining, Banaba no longer has a source of fresh water. In January 2023, the head of the Banaban Council of Elders reported that there had been no food or water imports in three months. In 2021, the Kiribati government built two desalination plants, but both have broken down. As a result, people are forced to drink contaminated water, leading to outbreaks of diseases and fears of starvation.
Mining has impacted food security by removing most of Banaba’s fertile soil and destroying hundreds of drought-resistant coconut and pandanus trees. The island’s remote location also presents a challenge for shipping to account for the loss of agricultural capacity.
Banaba has significant deposits of badly decaying asbestos, as most residential properties have been built with asbestos roofing material. Removing asbestos is difficult because there is no regular shipping route, no airfield, no local support structure, no readily available accommodation or food, and no suitable local disposal.
What is the situation on Rabi today?
The Banaban population on Rabi grew from 1,000 to 5,000 from 1945-1995. The development of their community has largely relied on the 10 million Australian dollars payment through the Banaban Settlement Act.
This fund has been insufficient to support development on Rabi, which remains “one of Fiji’s most disadvantaged and politically marginalized communities.” Lack of development assistance is compounded by geographic isolation, limited IT infrastructure, insufficient shipping and mail services, and political exclusion.
Fiji does provide some assistance for the Rabi Council of Leaders, with funds grouped alongside the other partially self-governing islands, Rotuma and Kioa. But last year, development assistance to the Rotuma and Kioa councils averaged around $140-150 per capita (FJD), while assistance to the Rabi was at an estimated $30 per capita.
The formal Rabi Council dissolved in 2013, so governance is currently led by the Acting Executive Director and Interim Administrator appointed by the Office of the Prime Minister.
What are the citizenship requirements for Banabans today?
Banabans can be citizens of both Fiji and Kiribati. This has not always been the case which has resulted in confusion.
The historical ban on dual nationality has led many Banabans to surrender their citizenship of other countries in order to maintain one citizenship of choice. Even though the law currently allows dual citizenship, many Banabans fear their ability to apply for and hold citizenship in Fiji and Kiribati could be threatened. In the long term, the Banaban community would benefit from guarantees from the governments of Fiji and Kiribati that neither will interfere with Banabans’ rights to hold dual citizenship.
Further support is needed to assist “undocumented” Banabans living in Rabi including clarifying procedures and reducing the financial burden on Banabans in the process of reapplying for Fijian citizenship now that dual citizenship is permitted. Further support is needed to help Banabans understand and navigate the different application processes for Fijian and Kiribatian citizenship, and this support should extend to members of the Banaban diaspora living elsewhere.
What provisions are Banabans asking for to better safeguard their rights?
In order to better safeguard the human rights of Banabans, ICAAD and the Banaban community have set out a series of recommendations for the governments of Kiribati and Fiji.
- The Kiribati government must take immediate action to ensure access to basic food supplies and clean water on Banaba.
- The Fiji Office of the Prime Minister should embark on an urgent fact-finding mission to Rabi to evaluate development outcomes. This trip should also include a scoping assessment to plan an election to reinstate the Rabi Council of Leaders. This should include amendments to the Banaban Settlement Act 1970.
- Both the Kiribati and Fiji governments should extend guarantees of dual citizenship for Banabans. This has not always been the case, and this guarantee is crucial for the enjoyment of a number of human rights.
- Both the Kiribati and Fiji governments should extend support to Banabans applying for citizenship, which should include reducing the application fee and simplifying processes.
- The Fiji government should establish a Ministry for Minor Ethnic Groups with a specific budget for development assistance on Rabi, Kioa, and Rotuma.
How can the public support the cause?
The community is asking for the public’s help in amplifying their message by sharing their story online using the hashtag #JusticeforRabi and by signing this petition.