Man From Low-Lying Island Nation Fights For Climate Refugee Status


Tarawa atoll, Kiribati

Tarawa atoll, Kiribati

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File

If ocean levels rise by as much as three feet by the end of the century, as predicted by the Fifth IPCC Assessment report released last week, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati — composed of 32 atolls — would mostly disappear.

The potential impacts on the 100,000 citizens of Kiribati, not to mention the millions of others living in low-lying island nations and coastal areas, of this climate change-induced forced exodus are already playing out in New Zealand where a Kiribati man is trying to convince the court that he’s a climate refugee.

The man, referred to as “AF” in hearings, and his wife came to New Zealand six years ago for higher ground and better prospects, according to The Associated Press. Since then, immigration authorities have twice rejected his argument that rising sea levels make it too dangerous for him and his family to return to Kiribati.

On October 16 the case will go before New Zealand’s High Court.

Bruce Burson, a member of New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, has said that the legal concept of a refugee is someone that is being persecuted, which requires human interaction. Burson also said that the man’s claim was rejected because the family’s predicament was the same as faced by the entire population of Kiribati.

“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,” he said.

Kiribati’s president Anote Tong is well aware of this fact and has suggested mass relocation to Fiji or even construction of floating island-type accommodation. The Kiribati government has already paid a deposit for 6,000 acres in Fiji for crop growing to provide food security.

The AP obtained a transcript of the man’s recent immigration hearing in which he describes high tides that kill crops, flood homes, and sicken residents with foul drinking water.

The legal case remains a long shot, but one that deserves close attention due to the likelihood of similar cases in the future. Sea level rise impacts not only low-lying islands with small populations but also heavily populated coastal regions, such as Kolkata, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Earlier this year Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairperson of the IPCC, said, “There is a very high risk in delta cities like Kolkata, Shanghai and Dhaka. They are very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Both people and property would be affected in such a scenario.”

In April the Refugee Council of Australia implored the Australian government to become the first nation in the world to recognize populations displaced due to changes in climate as “climate refugees.”

Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, told The Guardian, “These are people who are not suffering from persecution because of their beliefs, race or because they belong to a particular group.” As a result, “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. This is a new cohort of people who are emerging, the rest of the world needs to pay attention.”

As refugee-receiving nations like Australia and New Zealand grapple with the legal and political implications of climate refugees, island nations already reeling from the impacts of more severe weather events and sea-level rise will continue to roll with the tides and absorb the unwelcome changes as best as possible.

In the Maldives an entire new island, called Hulhumalé, has been developed by reclaiming dredged sand. When the second phase is completed in the next few years nearly 3,000 housing units will house 160,000 people — about a third of the entire population — at levels up to two meters above sea level.

“It is the safest island in the Maldives, from sea level at least,” Ahmed Varish, at the Hulhumalé Housing Development Corporation, told The Guardian.