Australia is facing pressure to accept the status of climate change refugees, as the country is located near many low-lying South Pacific island states and it’s the closest land mass that could provide a safe home for those affected by rising sea levels and global warming. The Refugee Council of Australia has asked the government to create a new category for climate change refugees and offer them the same protection as those escaping social persecution. This would amend the 1951 “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” forged after WWII, which primarily focuses on race, religion, national affiliation, or membership to a particular group.

kiribati, climate change, refugee, water

One of the nations facing an exodus fueled by climate change is Kiribati, formerly part of the British Gilbert and Ellis Islands. Its 33 islands straddle the equator for 5,000 km across the Pacific. The main atoll of Tarawa is becoming dangerously overcrowded with those moving away from the rising tides and storms which have contaminated fresh water and and inundated available land. Last year, in New Zealand, a 36-year-old Kiribati man argued in front of a immigration tribunal unsuccessfully to protest his deportation citing that he should be considered a climate refugee. The tribunal justified its decision by saying the Refugee Convention gave him no protection under the law.

The president of the Refugee Council of Australia, Phil Glendenning, visited Kiribati in March and urged Australia to consider designating a climate refugee status. He believes there is a “big chance” that thousands could be forced from their homes.

“These are people who are not suffering from persecution because of their beliefs, race or because they belong to a particular group. So they don’t meet the Refugee Convention criteria but, nevertheless, there will be a need for people to be resettled because they have been displaced by climate change,” he said. “This is a new cohort of people who are emerging, the rest of the world needs to pay attention.”

The current Labor party is unlikely to agree with Glendenning, although they could be soon unseated by the Liberal-National Coalition in September. While they have vowed to cut refugee intake by 6,000 places were they to come into office, Glendenning says that he has been speaking with senior officials in the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. For those living on vulnerable islands, their talks could determine where they will make their new permanent homes.

+ Refugee Council of Australia

Via The Guardian

Images via Wikicommons users Roisterer and Indolences.