The once abstract of climate refugees fleeing from a weather-ravaged corner of the world in search of safety has now become cold, hard reality. According to Grist, New Zealand officials recently accepted a refugee application by a family from Tuvalu, where climate change is causing their Pacific island home to sink. New Zealand has rejected similar refugee claims in the past, but UPI reports that this recently accepted application may have far-reaching legal implications for other cases.
As of now, climate change and sea level rise are not officially recognized as legitimate causes of displacement by the International Refugee Convention. And while the case of this Tuvalu family’s application featured other circumstances — the family had lived in New Zealand since 2007 and had strong ties to the community — environmental lawyers have watched the situation closely, curious about the case’s larger implications.
“I do see the decision as being quite significant,” Environmental law expert Vernon Rive told the New Zealand Herald. “But it doesn’t provide an open ticket for people from all the places that are impacted by climate change. It’s still a very stringent test and it requires exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature.”
According to the Washington Post, New Zealand accepted the family’s application for a variety of reasons, but the simple fact that the tribunal that heard their case mentioned climate change at all sets a precedent for future climate refugee cases. Still, the case remains exceptional because New Zealand is one of just a few countries that accepts refugees on an “exceptional humanitarian grounds” basis – which was clearly recognized as being the case when it comes to an island like Tuvalu that’s being submerged.