New Zealand Rejects Climate Refugee’s Appeal: Top Court Says Persecution The Sole Ground To Grant Refugee Status

By @diplomatist10 on
New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
IN PHOTO: New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key (L) delivers a statement following his meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo March 24, 2015. Reuters/Franck Robichon

New Zealand’s Supreme Court has turned down the appeal of a Pacific Islander who sought refugee status in the country, after living in the country for eight years, on the ground of climate related issues in his homeland. Ioane Teitiota, 38, approached New Zealand government to accept him as a climate refugee, which was rejected and he later moved the Supreme Court. If the appeal had been accepted, he would have been the first climate refugee in the world.

Tetiota, who came to New Zealand in 2007, argued that he should not be sent back to the island nation of Kiribati because it was under threat from rising seas that rendered his family unsafe. Following the Supreme Court's rejection of the final appeal, his deportation with family, comprising his wife and three young children looks imminent. All the children were born in Auckland. Since the immigration law holds that citizenship for children can be granted only if one of their parents is a lawful resident in the country, they will not get citizenship. Teitiota had left Kiribati in 2007 and had been overstaying in New Zealand and he was spotted by police in 2011 after a minor traffic offence.

Persecution As Reason

Rejecting Teitiota's appeal, the apex court said the Pacific Islander’s application does not meet the legal definition of a refugee as someone who is facing persecution. "While Kiribati undoubtedly challenges, Mr Teitiota does not, if returned, face 'serious harm'," the Supreme Court said. "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."  

Even while dismissing the Pacific Islander’s appeal, the Supreme Court noted in the ruling that it will not rule out the possibility of climate change being accepted as a ground for refugee status in the future. "Our decision in this case should not be taken as ruling out that possibility in an appropriate case," it said. Kiribati is a low lying Pacifica island above sea level by a few meters. It consists of about 30 atolls and is grappling with environmental problems linked to climate change, including storm surges and flooding.

Victims of Climate Change

The appeal of the climate refugee’s appeal has woken up the world to the plight of many Pacific Islanders, who are spread in 22 countries and territories. With a combined population of 9.2 million, the population of Pacific Island states ranges from 10,000 in Tuvalu to Papua New Guinea’s 7 million. A majority of the Pacific Island countries are under the category of Small Island Developing States, or “SIDS”. The Pacific Islands, with their tiny economies, banking mostly on tourism for revenue, lag resources to tackle climate-related challenges.

(For feedback/comments, contact the writer at k.kumar@ibtimes.com.au)