Advocates for the victims of climate change often use the evocative terms "climate change refugee" when referring to individuals who must relocate due to climate change related impacts. Academics and those that know refugee law have appropriately criticized the use of this term, pointing out the fact that well-settled refugee law simply excludes climate change victims from its definition. Still, it is quite frequent in my line of work to hear the term climate change refugee. I have been guilty of this in the past -- it is very tempting to use the word "refugee" when advocating for those that have to move from their homes, villages, and countries through no fault of their own. I have stopped using the term, however, because, in addition to the fact that it is simply inaccurate, it also conveys a false sense of legal and international hope for the victims of climate change. If we think an international legal framework has already been carved out for these people, it provides a sense of relief that, in this case, we simply cannot have. It is dangerous to believe that there are answers and protections for these people because that is simply untrue.
This has primarily been an academic debate until now. New Zealand immigration authorities have just refused refugee status to a man from the drowning island country of Kiribati. The 36-year-old man sought refuge in New Zealand from climate change related harm, saying on his application that he fears for his children's future on the coral atolls of Kiribati, which are elevated just slightly above sea level.
The I-Kiribati man has been in New Zealand since 2004. His visa expired recently, so he sought a more permanent solution to his sense of homelessness. During my recent trip to Kiribati, many spoke of New Zealand as a back up option that they would keep in the back of their mind. However, most that I spoke with want to remain in their homeland of Kiribati for as long as they can.
New Zealand authorities cited the fact that the Refugee Convention does not mention environmental harm in their denial of his application. Further, the authorities asked the man (who still remains anonymous) if he was persecuted because of his race, religion, nationality, or his membership in a particular social group or because of political opinion. This is a requirement under the Convention, and the requirement is unmet in this case. The man fears climate change, rather than his own government, which renders him powerless when it comes to utilizing the protection of the Refugee Convention.
The government of Kiribati is actually quite active in the area of climate change related work, both domestically and internationally, making it even more difficult for this man (and others) to be considered under the Refugee Convention.
I applaud this man for his creative thinking and hope that this story gains extensive coverage. It is very important for people to realize that the Refugee Convention is simply not providing physical refuge or legal protection to climate-change victims. Unfortunately there remains a great deal of work to be done in this area.
To see pictures showing coral atoll living, visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/Drowning-Islands/215571098482058
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