Kiribati man first climate 'refugee'

2013-10-29 15:58
Inhabitants of Kiritimati coral atoll building a stone seawall to struggle against sea level rise caused by global warming. (AFP)

Inhabitants of Kiritimati coral atoll building a stone seawall to struggle against sea level rise caused by global warming. (AFP)

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Wellington - Ioane Teitiota's homeland is under threat. The island nation of Kiribati, some 4 000km north-east of New Zealand, is feeling the strain of overpopulation, underdevelopment and the consequences of a warming climate.

The storms on Kiribati's 33 low-lying islands are brutal. The floods can be devastating. The coral beneath Teitiota's house in Kiribati is gradually being eroded away, even as sea levels rise.

"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," Teitiota, 37, told a New Zealand appeals tribunal in October.

Teitiota is in the midst of a long battle to be recognized as a climate refugee: the first person in the world to be granted refugee status on the grounds of climate change.

A previous ruling went against him in June. However, this week the Auckland High Court is due to decide whether he has grounds to appeal that decision.

If the ruling - expected this week - goes against his client, Teitiota's lawyer, Michael Kidd, says he will take the case to higher authorities.

"The other option would be to appeal it up to the Supreme Court and even then, if the Supreme Court says 'no,' you can go to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations," Kidd said.

Teitiota, who has twice been refused refugee status, moved to New Zealand six years ago on a guest worker visa. He first worked in construction jobs.

"He stayed on after his visa expired and is today an illegal worker," Kidd said.

Teitiota currently lives in Auckland with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom is 18 months old. He ekes out a living doing farm jobs, such as picking strawberries, his lawyer said, but his debts have now reached four figures.

Coconut trees dying

Meanwhile, his native country is also struggling. A New Zealand government report on Kiribati concluded that it was extremely fragile economically, socially, and environmentally.

The report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade points to serious health and social problems due to a lack of functional sewerage, limited access to drinking water and coastal erosion.

"You get flooding on a regular basis where at least half the island is under water," Kidd said. "Most plants don't like salt and, in fact, half the coconut trees have died in Kiribati - and that is a staple."

Despite the difficult conditions in Kiribati, Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert and associate professor at the University of Auckland, said he didn't hold out much hope that Teitiota would be granted refugee status.

He said the 1951 Refugee Convention was designed to protect individuals who had a reasonable fear of persecution because of their gender, religion, ethnic origin or race.

"This guy doesn't quite fit because he hasn't been persecuted as an individual and there is no harassment inflicted upon him because of his race or gender," Hodge said.

Alarm bell

He argues that there needs to be a new convention which covers global warming and rising sea levels and possibly desertification.

The lack of such a convention hasn't dimmed Kidd's optimism that his client has a chance of making history as the world's first climate refugee.

"I'd like to think the judge will sit down and say: Okay, well, perhaps the Refugee Convention is outdated and we could tweak here, and tweak there, and bingo, Teitiota would be allowed to stay - primarily because of his children."

Kidd believes that the case is one more alarm bell that the planet is undergoing catastrophic change.

"Kiribati as a place will cease to exist and just simply disappear beneath the waves," he warns.

"Unless people stop what they are doing and also recognize the problems that Mr Teitiota and people like him have ... within 100 years I think this planet will be unliveable and I don't want to leave that sort of situation to my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren," he said.

Read more on:    kiribati  |  migrants  |  climate change

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