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World's First Climate Refugee Rebuffed by New Zealand

A man from the low-lying island nation of Kiribati is told that sea-level rise does not pose risk to him and his family

Jon Queally

A man from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, 37-year-old Ioane Teitiota, has been refused his bid to attain legal asylum status as one of the world's first climate refugees after a judge in New Zealand on Tuesday rebuffed his appeal.

Teitiota's ongoing legal challenge presents the case that rising sea levels caused by human-caused global warming have imperiled his ability to live in his home country.

Kiribati, with an average elevation of only 6.5 feet about sea level, is among the countries scientists say is most vulnerable to rising oceans and stronger storms, both of which increase as climate change continues to make its impact felt.

But according to Judge John Priestly, the refugee claim did not meet the country's legal standards for asylum.

"By returning to Kiribati, he would not suffer a sustained and systemic violation of his basic human rights such as the right to life...or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing," Priestley wrote in his ruling.

And Radio Australia reports:

The judge rejected the argument from Mr Teitiota's legal team that he was being "persecuted passively" by the environment because climate change was a threat to him that the Kiribati government was powerless to control.

"Novel and optimistic though these submissions are, they are unconvincing and must fail," Mr Priestley wrote.

"On a broad level, were they to succeed and be adopted in other jurisdictions, at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare, or indeed presumptive hardships caused by climate change, would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention."

He said there had been numerous similar claims under international law for climate change refugee status by people from low-lying countries such as Tonga, Fiji and Bangladesh, none of which had succeeded.

"It is not for the High Court of New Zealand to alter the scope of the Refugee Convention in that regard," he said. "Rather that is the task, if they so choose, of the legislatures of sovereign states."

But as recent events at the UN climate talks in Warsaw showed, wealthy nations have again asserted their unwillingness to deal with the impending crisis of climate refugees.

According to numerous experts and civil society groups like Oxfam International, however, the threat of climate change to vulnerable people will be one of the central destabilizing forces for the century ahead.

"As poor countries feel the effects of climate change, the reality of relocation is of international concern," Oxfam stated recently. "Pacific islanders will be among the world’s first people displaced because of climate change. Today there are an estimated 26 million climate refugees, yet by 2050, 200 million people a year will be on the move due to hunger, environmental degradation and loss of land due to climate change."

In the singular case of Teitiota and Kiribati, the case exemplifies the growing issue of how wealthy, more developed nations will be asked to deal with an influx of those driven from their native lands by the onset of climate change.

As Reuters reports:

New Zealand and Australia, the two most developed countries in the South Pacific, have resisted calls to change immigration rules in favour of Pacific people displaced by climate change.

Kiribati, part of former British colony the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, comprises 32 atolls and a coral island, straddling the Equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii and spread over 2 million square miles of ocean.

It has bought land in Fiji to grow food and build a potential resettlement site for people displaced by rising seas. It is trying to give its people skills to become more attractive as immigrants, an approach it calls "migration with dignity".

Teitiota is still able to appeal his case further, or he could be reported. Either way, his case may be the first, but it won't be the last of its kind. If the experts are correct, there could be millions more in the decades ahead.

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