Yesterday, New Zealand’s High Court denied a last-ditch effort by a Pacific Islander who was seeking asylum on the basis of global warming’s adverse environmental effects on his homeland.
Ioane Teitiota, a 37-year-old native of Kiribati, is out of appeals and must return to the shrinking island of Tarawa with his wife. His three Kiwi-born children will also be deported because New Zealand doesn’t recognize the offspring of illegal immigrants.
Justice John Priestly, the judge presiding over Teitiota’s case in Auckland, called his case “novel” but ultimately “unconvincing.”
According to a World Bank report, Kiribati’s biophysical and socioeconomic conditions make it one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. Also known as Christmas Island, Kiribati comprises 32 small, low-lying islands about 2000 kilometers south of Hawaii. Because most of Kiribati’s islands are less than 2 kilometers wide, many of the nation’s 100,000 residents are living near exposed coastlines.
“The people of Kiribati have already started losing their homes and resources critical to their livelihoods such as coral reefs and fisheries,” said the report. “Due to an increase in the frequency of storms and tropical cyclones, intrusion of salt water and sea level rise are increasing. Paired with lack of rain and higher temperatures, all these factors are depleting freshwater supplies.”
World Bank added, “With no climate change adaptation efforts, most of the land on the major islands could become inundated by 2050.”
According to Kiribati’s Office of the President, the country is currently in the final phase of a three-part Adaptation Program designed to strengthen access to fresh water, protect against coastal erosion, and increase the capacity for local communities to manage the effects of climate change.
“Although in most of the world there is some time to plan and prepare for climate change, Kiribati is the first to feel its effects as a direct threat to continued life in our country,” said a message from the president. “It is doubtful that any other country feels the effects of climate change as much as we do … the entire nation faces real danger – our own survival is at stake as a people, as a unique and vibrant culture and as a sovereign nation.”
The government of Kiribati has also moved to purchase 5,000 acres of land in Fiji to act as a farm in the event that saltwater contamination makes it impossible to grow crops in the homeland.
Teitiota and his wife moved to New Zealand in 2007 after deciding that life in Kitibati was no longer sustainable. He filed the refugee bid after overstaying his visa. Teitiota’s lawyers argued that New Zealand’s refugee laws were outdated, also stating that high tides, breached seawalls, and rising ocean levels were creating imminent danger for the islander and his family.
“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 countered.
The High Court Justice added, “The economic environment of Kiribati might certainly not be as attractive to the applicant and his fellow nationals as the economic environment and prospects of Australia and New Zealand. But he would not, if he returns, be subjected to individual persecution.”
With millions of other people living in dangerously low-lying island nations, Priestly found that an asylum bid based on global warming concerns did not meet the terms of a 1951 UN convention of refugees. The current requirements in the convention state that a refugee must have a legitimate fear of persecution in his home country.
While a rising sea and an increase in severe weather may make life more difficult, Teitiota failed to prove that nature is persecuting him.