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Asylum from climate change?

Hanspeter Wyss's picture

(In observance of the International Migrants Day on December 18)

You probably do not spend much time contemplating leaving your country of birth, your home, your family, your community and your job because rising sea levels are making your current place of residence too dangerous and difficult.  But then, you probably do not live in Kiribati, a small state in the South Pacific with a population of just over 100,000, like Ioana Teitiota. He and his family have requested asylum in New Zealand claiming to be climate change refugees.  Sea levels in Kiribati have been rising and are contaminating drinking water, destroying crops, flooding homes, and undermining livelihoods, but apparently, these imperatives are not (yet) enough.

The UN Refugee Convention addresses war and persecution issues, but does not recognize environmental changes as suitable grounds for granting asylum. This Convention - drafted more than sixty years ago – is in need of revision to take into account that people are being involuntarily displaced. The effects of sea level increase or desertification are making some areas that are currently populated increasingly inhospitable. Other more immediate natural disasters, like floods, typhoons, and earthquakes are also necessitating domestic or cross-border migration. Numerous efforts are now underway to address this challenge, including the Nansen Initiative, a state-led consultative process to build agreement on key principles regarding the protection of people displaced across borders by natural disasters and the adverse effects of climate change. 

Kiribati’s Government, has a duty to look ahead and provide options to its people. If sea levels will rise by 20 to 60 centimeters by 2090 (as projected by researchers), the islands will be severely affected and a good part of the population will need to relocate. The Government has already started purchasing 6,000 acres in nearby Fiji, with a view to boosting food security and a possible migration destination. What Kiribati’s President Anote Tong said some days ago is alarming: “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future – in terms of if and when people migrate or whatever they do… but most of the time we are too busy dealing with the details that we forget about the fundamental issue - survival.”

In November 2013, New Zealand’s High Court acknowledged that Kiribati was suffering environmental degradation, but Iona Teitiota and his family did not qualify as refugees under international law. So they did not become the world’s first official climate change refugees. Their case, however, serves as a call for more thinking on climate change adaptation strategies, on availability of migration avenues for Kiribati’s and other concerned populations, and whether the definition of what constitutes a refugee has to be expanded, sooner rather than later, given that many scientists expect a rise in sea levels and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. 


Submitted by Miles on

One of the most important caveats of rising sea levels is not this often cartoonish notion of the ocean rising over the island. Rather, it's the salinity of the ocean rising into the underground water aquifers on these low-lying atolls, in effect slowly killing of vegetation and reducing drinking water. This is perhaps the most critical threat, with "King Tides" or increasingly large storm surges being the second major concern.

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