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New Zealand Supreme Court Rejects Kiribati Man’s Bid to Become a 'Climate Refugee'

Ioane Teitiota and his family face deportation from New Zealand after its highest court ruled that the environmental threat of rising sea levels does not constitute grounds for refugee status.
Image via NASA/Wikicommons

New Zealand's Supreme Court has delivered the final rejection of a Pacific Islander's landmark bid to become a climate refugee.

Ioane Teitiota, a 38-year-old man who has been living in New Zealand since 2007, had argued that he and his wife and three children would face "passive persecution" if they were forced to return to the low-lying archipelago nation of Kiribati because its government is unable to protect them from rising sea levels caused by climate change.


Prior to arriving in New Zealand, Teitiota was looking for work and living with his wife's extended family in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. He and his wife obtained work visas in New Zealand and were relieved to escape Tarawa, which has endured frequent flooding.

Having overstayed his visa after his immigration lawyer failed to file the renewal paperwork on time due to miscommunication, Teitiota came to the attention of police in 2011 over a burned-out taillight. Arrested without a visa, he risked being deported.

Teitiota and his wife sought out attorney and pastor Michael Kidd, who argued that the couple were being indirectly persecuted by industrialized nations whose failure to address climate change has had dire environmental consequences on nations like Karibati. After losing cases before both New Zealand's High Court and Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court was Teitiota's final avenue of appeal.

In rejecting his bid, the court found that he did not meet the technical definition of a refugee as outlined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates protection for someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."


Kiribati is Gone - Islanders face stark — GlobalOnenessProject (@goproject)July 19, 2015

Kiribati is made up of 32 ring-shaped atolls and one raised coral island called Banaba. The only country that is situated within all four hemispheres, it is also the first nation to see the sunrise every day. With a population of slightly more than 100,000, Kiribati is geographically one of the smallest nations in the world, covering a total area of 313 square miles.

With many of the nation's islands only a few feet above sea level, Kiribati has experienced severe flooding and storms in recent years, which threaten to contaminate its water supply and soil. It has purchased a 5,460-acre piece of land in Fiji, located 1,250 miles southwest of the country, to cultivate food if excessive salt water makes its own land incapable of doing so, and has speculated on whether its entire population will eventually need to be evacuated from the diminishing archipelago.

Despite acknowledging that the island nation faces environmental "challenges," the court ruled that Teitiota and his family were not at risk of "serious harm" in Kiribati.

"There is no evidence that the government of Kiribati is failing to take steps to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation, to the extent that it can," it said.

Teitiota and his family now face deportation, though his three children were born in New Zealand.


Reports had suggested that Teitiota's pursuit of climate refugee status, if successful, would have been the "first" victory of its kind, but last year New Zealand granted residency on humanitarian grounds to a family that had appealed on the basis of climate change. The residency was granted in part because the family had three generations of relatives living in the country.

"It doesn't provide an open ticket for people from all the places that are impacted by climate change," environmental lawyer Vernon Rive said at the time. "It's still a very stringent test and it requires exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature."

Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, a research fellow and an international migrations expert at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) at Sciences Po, in Paris, described the Supreme Court's decision in Teitiota's case as "archaic."

"Sooner of a later, the issue will need to be addressed," she said.

Though it rejected Teitiota's bid for refugee status, New Zealand's Supreme Court appeared to acknowledge Wihtol de Wenden's point.

The country's lower courts, it said, "emphasized their decisions did not mean environmental degradation resulting from climate change or other natural disasters could never create a pathway into the Refugee Convention or protected person jurisdiction. Our decision in this case should not be taken as ruling out that possibility in an appropriate case."


Other archipelago countries — including the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Vanuatu— are also facing huge environmental challenges as a result of climate change.

Despite 19.3 million people having been displaced by natural disasters in 2014, there is currently no legal recognition of the status of a climate refugee.

François Gemenne, a research fellow at CERI who specializes in environmental migration, told VICE News that the quest for climate refugee status was doomed to failure, and would be perceived by countries "as a constraint." Instead of a single status, Gemenne advocated for a series of bilateral treaties between nations.

Wihtol de Wenden agreed with Gemenne.

"International governments are worried about millions of people flocking to their countries," she said, adding that any attempt to modify the criteria for refugee status in order to include environmental clauses would be perceived as "an immigration control loophole."

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius called Tuesday for a "global response" to the issue of climate refugees. Fabius, who is also the president of the United Nation's Cop 21 climate change conference being held in Paris in December, told Radio France that the issue wouldn't be solved "directly by COP21," but promised that France and other countries were committed to finding a joint solution.

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron (@pierrelouis_c) and Pierre Longeray (@PLongeray) on Twitter

Satellite image of Maiana Atoll, Gilbert Islands, Kiribati via NASA/Wikicommons