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Do more for the Pacific over ‘climate refugees’, pleads asylum case lawyer

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Vanuatu’s Cyclone Pam in March … increasingly intense weather patterns in the Pacific make it difficult for agriculturally reliant communities to support themselves. Image: Pacific Scoop archive

A lawyer who defended a Kiribati national seeking asylum in New Zealand based on climate change says more can be done for Pacific people whose islands are significantly threatened by rising sea levels, writes an Asia-Pacific Journalism reporter.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Latifa Daud

The lawyer who defended Ioana Teitiota, a Kiribati national seeking asylum in New Zealand because of climate change, says the Supreme Court decision could open doors for future climate change cases.

The two-year long campaign to allow Teitiota and his wife to stay in New Zealand as “climate change refugees” was denied by the Supreme Court in July 2015. The ruling was based on a claim that the Kiribati government is taking steps to ensure the safety of its citizens.

The 1951 Refugee Convention says that to claim refugee status, one must face persecution based on religion, ethnicity or being a member of the social group.

However, Teitiota’s lawyer Michael Kidd argues more can be done for the Pacific people whose islands are significantly threatened due to rising sea levels.

“What’s disappointing about the Supreme Court decision is that they cannot move from that point where there’s a general system of persecution to where climate change, droughts, water inundation and pollution is a general persecution,” says Kidd, who had appealed against an earlier High Court judgement.

“New Zealand has a responsibility towards our Pacific brethren who are currently drowning.

“As the situation is Kiribati deteriorates to the point where there’s wholesale evacuation you’ll get some success.”

Biggest concern
An Amnesty International New Zealand spokesperson says climate change is one of the biggest concern in the region and could have huge implications on the human rights of effected communities.

“Not only is climate change an environmental issue, it is a human rights issue,” says Amanda Brydon, advocacy manager at Amnesty International.

“While Amnesty International doesn’t currently take a position on climate change, the organisation recognises that the impact of climate change has serious implications for people’s human rights.”

“Climate change will increasingly become one of the biggest barriers to the rights to housing, water, food, health and adequate standard of living. Communities living in poverty can be especially vulnerable to climate change-related impacts, in particular those concentrated in unplanned and unserviced settlements within urban areas,” says Brydon.

Rising sea levels has caused communities living on low-lying islands to become severely threatened. Evacuations began in 2009 to move people from the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea, to the island of Bougainville.

According to CNN, Carteret Islanders are described as the first group of people living on an island who are facing forced and organised relocation due to climate change and rising sea levels. The island is believed to be uninhabitable by this year.

Tuvalu is another Pacific island nation that is at risk of being uninhabitable within the next 30 years.

‘Happening right now’
“Tuvalu and Kiribati have been saying for at least 10 to 15 years to the rest of the world that this is a reality for them. It’s not about a threat, it’s happening right now,” says Rachael Le Mesurier, executive director at Oxfam New Zealand.

The organisation, which works with communities dealing with humanitarian disasters, says the intensity of weather patterns such as cyclone season is clearly increasing and the impact on the affected communities is evident.

Referring to Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in March 2015, Le Mesurier says: “320km-an-hour winds has just never been seen before.”

The increasingly intense weather patterns are making it difficult for agriculturally reliant communities to support themselves.

“Tuvalu and Kiribati are seeing areas that have been agriculturally viable being damaged.

“Taro crops are no longer able to grow because the salt is coming up through the coral and making it impossible for them to grow crops they’ve grown for ages.

“The Pacific countries are not the ones that are responsible for climate change. They have such a small number of proportional emissions.”

Hit by consequences
Senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace Simon Boxer says that the Pacific Islands have a small number of emissions into the atmosphere yet are primarily dealing with the consequences of pollution.

According to Boxer, the aim is to “recognise that the Pacific is on the front line of climate change and its been caused by polluters like New Zealand and Australia.”

Greenpeace believes New Zealand has a responsibility to allow those affected by climate change to settle in New Zealand.

“Our view is that New Zealand is part of the problem. We are the polluters. We’re creating this devastation of Pacific communities. Therefore we have the moral duty to accommodate those we’re displacing. New Zealand and Australia have to take a lot more proactive role on allowing climate refugees to come in and not trying to put as many legal hurdles in the way as possible.

“There have been attempts at the United Nations level to have countries like New Zealand be liable for creating this problem. They should have to pay compensation and be forced to help countries adapt and take refugees which is part of it.”

A political studies dissertation, “Warming to the issue? New Zealand’s evolving position on climate change refugees in the Pacific”, said one of the reasons for little policy change is trade.

“At the moment New Zealand’s ‘moral responsibility’ consists of preventing climate change, and its ‘geopolitical interest’ focuses on liberalising trade.

Prevention initiatives
“The emerging interest from this discourse is one that sees New Zealand not creating formal policy that deals with climate forced migrants, and instead focussing most of its energy on prevention initiatives when it has to deal with climate change,” wrote Kathy Errington, who was a University of Auckland student at the time.

She also argued organisation and lack of resources made it difficult for communities to lobby within New Zealand. This policy change would include global responsibility towards the effected communities.

“The number of Niueans residing in Niue is 1600, and 20,000 Niueans reside in New Zealand. Niue is one of the nations affected by coral bleaching, threatening the livelihoods of many residents.

“Yet the lack of organisational infrastructure in regards to political lobbying makes it difficult for Pacific communities to challenge the position of the dominant discourse, which stresses Pacific governments’ responsibility to adapt to climate change, rather than international responsibility.”

Latifa Daud is an AUT postgraduate student majoring in journalism and reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies paper.

The Teitiota High Court judgment


Mata Lauano checks out public opinion on climate change refugees for Te Waha Nui.