Man Seeks Refugee Status in New Zealand Over Global Warming
From the I'll-Try-Anything-to-Escape-Deportation Dept:
Swelling numbers of refugees fleeing strife-torn regions of Asia for safer havens in developed economies have barely caused a ripple in New Zealand. Last year, just 324 people claimed asylum—fewer than in small European states like Macedonia or Montenegro.
But a case due before a judge in Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, focuses on a novel type of asylum seeker: those seeking refuge from rising sea levels linked to climate change.
A 37-year-old man from the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati is claiming refugee status in New Zealand on grounds that global warming has made it too dangerous to return to his homeland. The man cannot be named under a New Zealand immigration law designed to protect asylum seekers.
Earlier this year, New Zealand's immigration tribunal rejected the argument in a closed-door hearing, but the man is appealing that decision in the country's High Court on Wednesday.
Kiribati is one of the world's lowest-lying nations. Comprising a group of coral reefs and one island that straddles the Equator, most of the country is only one or two meters above sea level. Worries over the impact of rising sea levels prompted the Kiribati government to buy 6,000 acres of land in neighboring Fiji earlier this year to grow food and potentially resettle part of its 100,000 people if the country were to become uninhabitable.
The subject of global warming and how to respond to it has been the source of intense public debate in many countries around the world in recent years. Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, once described the arguments behind climate change as "absolute crap" and has vowed to repeal an unpopular carbon tax on the country's biggest polluters. In contrast, New Zealand has made tackling climate change a key environmental priority, and rolled out an emissions trading program in 2011 to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.
Late last month, the United Nations reiterated in a landmark report that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," noting that air and oceans are getting warmer, ice and snow is less plentiful, and sea levels are rising.
For the asylum seeker from Kiribati, life was becoming increasingly unlivable because of the impact of climate change, according to court documents filed on his behalf and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The documents say that frequent high tides killed the man's crops on the main atoll of Tarawa in Kiribati and contaminated drinking water supplies. The documents say the rising sea levels were driving more people to Tarawa, intensifying tensions with residents that spilled over into knife fights.
The man, who fled to New Zealand six years ago, said in the submission that he fears a breakdown of law and order in the country "as the country becomes more affected by climate change" and that his family face the "grave prospect of serious harm" if they return.
Auckland-based lawyer Michael Kidd, who specializes in human rights, confirmed he was representing the man but declined to make his client available for interview.
Still, legal experts say the man will have difficulty overturning the earlier tribunal decision, which rejected his claim on the grounds that his life wasn't in jeopardy and many others on Kiribati faced similar problems.
"It isn't any different for him than anyone else in Kiribati—it's a threat to the nation," said Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert at the University of Auckland. "The legal principle at the moment only recognizes the individual risk not the collective risk."