Ioane Teitiota and his wife Angua Erika, from the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, had hoped to become the world's first climate change refugees. Photo: V. O'Brien / DW

By Kathy Marks
12 May 2014

(The Independent) – Ioane Teitiota, from the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, had hoped to become the world’s first climate change refugee. His low-lying homeland is likely to be engulfed by waves by the end of this century – and to become uninhabitable long before then.

But the Court of Appeal in New Zealand, where Mr Teitioa, 37, has been living since 2007, took an old-fashioned view of what constitutes a refugee. In a ruling yesterday, it called his case “fundamentally misconceived”, and an attempt to “stand the [UN refugee] convention on its head”.

The decision means Mr Teitioa and his family will be deported, as his work visa expired in 2010. Mr Teitioa was a subsistence farmer and fisherman in Kiribati, a string of 33 coral atolls, and he argued he faced “passive persecution” if forced to return home, as the government there was unable to protect him from climate change’s effects.

Rejecting his submissions, the Court of Appeal called them “novel” but “unconvincing”, and noted that millions of other people in low-lying countries were in a similar situation.

It added that while Mr Teitioa’s economic prospects might be better in New Zealand, “his position does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national”.

Storm surges and flooding are already causing environmental degradation in Kiribati, part of the former British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The water table is becoming contaminated by salt, making it difficult to grow crops there. […]

They also warned that if Mr Teitioa’s arguments were accepted there and 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 … would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention”. [more]

World’s first ‘climate change refugee’ has appeal rejected as New Zealand rules Ioane Teitiota must return to South Pacific island nation of Kiribati

Homes on Kiribati flooded by rising sea level. Kiribati native Ioane Teitiota's appeal for climate refugee status in Auckland High Court has been deined. University of Waikato PhD candidate and Kiribati native John Corcoran presented photographic evidence to Auckland's High Court in support of Teitiota's claim. Photo: John Corcoran

By Vanessa O'Brien; Editing by Nancy Isenson

Ranui, West Auckland (DW) – Thirty-seven-year-old Ioane Teitiota's rented home in Ranui, West Auckland, is no palace, but it is his refuge - temporarily at least.

The run-down wooden structure in a multi-cultural area of Auckland is sparsely furnished, as if the family does not want to invest anything in a future now uncertain.

Even the Christmas tree remains undecorated for this traditional Christian family, as last week the Auckland High Court declined their application for refugee status. Because they stayed in the country after their residence visas expired, they were told that they could be deported as soon as December 22. Now that date has been extended until the end of January.

Their main living area is decorated with only three covered couches, a television and a yellow Pacific island banner to remind Teitiota, his wife, Angua Erika, and his three children, Yolisa (5), Tebukaiti (3) and Riango (16 months), of their other home, the Pacific islands of Kiribati.

It's a home they say they cannot return to for fear that rising ocean levels will swallow Kiribati - and them with it - within 20 years.

As the family huddle together on the couch, Erika softly dabs at the tears that stain her cheeks. "We hope we can stay in New Zealand for our future life. Not for us, but for our kids' future lives," she says. […]

"There's no job for us when we go back home," Erika says, whose English is far better than her husband's. "It's very hard. There's no future life there. We are looking for a future life for our kids."

But that's not even their greatest fear.

"When we go back to Kiribati, it's hard for our three kids to stay there when we know that in 20 or 30 years Kiribati will disappear under the rising sea level," says Erika.

Fear of an Atlantis-like end is not just a legend for the people of Kiribati. University of Waikato PhD candidate and Kiribati native John Corcoran presented evidence to Auckland's High Court in support of Teitiota's claim last week.

High spring tides now flood causeways and land destroying residential dwellings and businesses, increasing the salinity of the soil, destroying traditional food crops through the diminution of arable land and contaminating fresh water sources, resulting in a deterioration of the population's health. Geographically, the islands are small fragments and all no more than three meters above sea level.

Scientists attribute this to climate change. A 1989 United Nations report lists Kiribati as an endangered country due to rising sea levels, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report states that Kiribati is vulnerable to climate change.

The New Zealand High Court Tribunal accepted the 2007 National Adaptation Program of Action which had been filed by the Kiribati government under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and accepted Teitiota and Corcoran as credible witnesses. It did not, however, accept the key argument made by Teitiota's lawyer, Michael Kidd.

Kidd argued that Kiribati's fate was directly due to climate change, which stemmed from the carbon emissions of industrial and primarily Western nations.

"My point is that weather and climate change is a form of indirect persecution due to human agency, rising CO2 levels," Kidd says.

However, Justice John Priestley determined that there was no malice on behalf of Western nations; a key determinant in defining persecution under the United Nations Refugee Convention. [more]

'When Kiribati disappears, we're going to die with our kids'


  1. Anonymous said...

    Too young


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