Onotoa Atoll in Kiribati, via Rafael Ávila Coya/Flickr
There are refugees from war, from famine, from natural disasters, but a man is trying to stay in New Zealand because his country is disappearing under a rising ocean. He claims he and his family are refugees from climate change.
The man, who due to New Zealand immigration laws must remain nameless, is from Kiribati, a remote chain of atolls in the Pacific halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It is one of the lowest lying nations on Earth and as such, it is one of the first nations that will likely disappear as ocean levels rise. Kiribati has a population of about 103,000 people, and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Not too many natural resources, just phosphate that ran out in the 1970s. It only has one endemic land species, the Kiritimati reed-warbler.The 37-year-old man and his wife moved to New Zealand six years ago on work visas, and have had three kids while living there.
The New Zealand immigration authorities have already rejected his claim that the rising ocean makes returning to Kiribati impossible, twice. But his lawyer, Michael Kidd, specializes in human rights cases and has vowed to take this case all the way to New Zealand’s top court. On October 16, Kidd will present the man’s case to the High Court.
According to the man, king tides have been breaching the sea walls that surround his village since 1998. He said the high tides kill crops and fouled the drinking water of the village, which lacks a sewer system. Kiribati is also one of the “least developed” countries in the world, and the man said returning there would endanger the lives of his youngest children.
"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the tribunal, according to a transcript acquired by the AP. "Especially for my children. There's nothing for us there."
But according to New Zealand, that doesn’t qualify the family as refugees. Bruce Burson, a member of New Zealand's Immigration and Protection Tribunal, said that refugees have to be fleeing persecution. That definition is consistent with the UN High Commission for Refugees, which defines a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” and “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.”
Burson also said that the family’s situation doesn’t differ greatly from the other citizens of Kiribati. “Life generally became progressively more insecure on Tarawa as a result of sea-level-rise," Burson said, quoting an expert witness who explained that Kiribati was in crisis from population pressure and climate change. “
The sad reality is that the environmental degradation caused by both slow and sudden-onset natural disasters is one which is faced by the Kiribati population generally,” added Burson, who said he found the man seeking refugee status credible and that his story was “accepted in its entirety.” It wasn’t enough to get him refugee status in New Zealand though. The risks to the man and his family fell “well short of the threshold required to establish substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of arbitrary deprivation of life," according to Burson.
As it is a national problem in Kiribati, the country’s president, Anote Tong, is weighing his options. The nation has already put a deposit down on 6,000 acres for farming in Fiji, and has explored building artificial islands for residents to move to, islands that either float or are like oil platforms.
Even without the imminent ocean swallowing Kiribati, the islands were poor in resources and underdeveloped. With the ocean’s rise the islands would lack the basic natural resource of land. Even if he isn’t found to be a refugee from climate change, it’s easy to see why the man feels his children have better opportunities in New Zealand.
But climate change refugees are going to a more common occurance in the near future. The UNHCR estimates that there are 600,000 people living on low-lying Pacific islands like Kiribati. The highest point on the Maldives is just 2.4 meters. Tuvalu could disappear in 50 years. And these islands are just the beginning. The UN estimates that if global temperatures rise by three to four degrees there could be as many as 330 million people displaced. The man who doesn't want to return to Kiribati is one of the first, but he certainly won't be the last.