United Nations rejects Kiribati man climate refugee claim - PM

James Marshall
January 22, 2020

The Pacific island is at risk of becoming the first country to disappear under rising sea levels.

The judgment is a result of a case brought forward in February 2016 against the government of New Zealand by Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati, after authorities denied his claim of asylum as a "climate refugee".

The New Zealand courts rejected Teitiota's claim for protection, as did the United Nations human rights committee, an independent body that monitors global human rights, on the grounds that while "sea level rise is likely to render the republic of Kiribati uninhabitable ... the timeframe of 10 to 15 years, as suggested by [Teitiota], could allow for intervening acts by the republic of Kiribati, with the assistance of the worldwide community, to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population".

That decision could have big implications for Australia and the Pacific.

Still, the committee's 18 independent experts acknowledged that "environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life".

Teitiota claimed that the effects of climate change and sea-level rise forced him to migrate from the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati to New Zealand, citing scarce access to freshwater and land disputes over inhabitable land.

However, the HRC did effectively put countries around the world on notice by recognizing that when the effects of climate change do pose a threat to an individual's life, that individual should not be turned away if they seek asylum in another country. He applied for protection in New Zealand in 2013, claiming his and his family's lives were at risk.

"Without robust national and global efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights", its ruling said. He was deported to Kiribati in September 2015.

The committee added that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water was so extreme that a life with dignity may not be possible even before this happened.

"We did indicate quite clearly that we can envisage future situations in which individuals will be able to claim a right-to-life violation on the basis of climate change", he said, urging governments to take this into consideration when reviewing asylum claims. Cyclone Pam was pounding South Pacific islands with hurricane force winds, huge ocean swells and flash flooding at the time.

The Pacific Islands, Schuetze said, "are the canary in the coal mine for climate induced migrants". Low-lying island states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are only one or two metres above sea level.

"The fact that this [difficulty growing crops and accessing safe drinking water] is a reality for many others in the country, does not make it any more dignified for the persons living in such conditions. Governments must consider this risky reality and a heating planet's imminent threat to Pacific peoples' lives and livelihoods".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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