Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati in the South Pacific has lost his latest bid to be recognized as the world’s first climate change refugee. Since 2010, Mr. Teitiota, 37, has claimed he is the victim of “passive persecution” in his homeland as rising sea levels salinate or engulf the tiny nation. He claims that his government is unable to protect his “right to life” and that of his New Zealand-born children. Unfortunately, the New Zealand courts disagree. The Court of Appeal has labeled his case “fundamentally misconceived.”
Mr. Teitiota was a subsistence farmer in Kiribati. However, the atoll and island chain has faced an increase in storm surges and coastal erosion, as well as increased groundwater salination due to the effects of rising sea levels. Water salinity and the loss of arable land to the sea is making it ever more difficult to eke crops out of what was already poor soil. Kiribati has been very vocal on the issue of climate change, calling on the world’s developed nations to accept responsibility for global warming and assist those countries that are already beginning to suffer from its effects. The Kiribati government has also gone so far as to purchase land in Fiji as a last-resort resettlement measure should the country be rendered uninhabitable.
Despite this, it seems that the New Zealand courts have been wary of setting a precedent for refugee claims on the basis of climate change. Mr. Teitiota’s case has already been rejected by the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal and the High Court. In handing down its decision, the Court of Appeal cautioned that if the case was accepted, “at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare … would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention.” It also noted that “his position does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national.”
In an interview with Radio Australia, Mr. Teitiota’s lawyer, Michael Kidd, indicated that although they have probably exhausted all likely avenues, they may still take their case to the New Zealand Supreme Court. If that fails, they may approach the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. For now though, Mr. Teitiota and his family face deportation to their homeland, as his New Zealand work visa expired in 2010.
Photos by ACIAR; KevGuy4101 and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia via Flickr; and NASA via Wikimedia Commons.