’Climate Refugee’ Fighting to Stay in New Zealand
A man from one of the lowest-lying nations on Earth is trying to convince New Zealand judges that he’s a refugee - suffering not from persecution, but from climate change.
The 37-year-old and his wife left his remote atoll in the Pacific nation of Kiribati six years ago for higher ground and better prospects in New Zealand, where their three children were born. Immigration authorities have twice rejected his argument that rising sea levels make it too dangerous for him and his family to return to Kiribati.
So on Oct. 16, the man’s lawyer, Michael Kidd, plans to argue the case before New Zealand’s High Court. Kidd, who specializes in human rights cases, told The Associated Press he will appeal the case all the way to the country’s Supreme Court if necessary.
Legal experts consider the man’s case a long shot, but it will nevertheless be closely watched, and might have implications for tens of millions of residents in low-lying islands around the world. Kiribati, an impoverished string of 33 coral atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has about 103,000 people and has been identified by scientists as among the nations most vulnerable to climate change.
In a transcript of the immigration case obtained by the AP, the Kiribati man describes extreme high tides known as king tides that he says have started to regularly breach Kiribati’s defenses - killing crops, flooding homes and sickening residents. New Zealand immigration laws prevent the AP from naming him.
The man said that around 1998, king tides began regularly breaching the sea walls around his village, which was overcrowded and had no sewerage system. He said the fouled drinking water would make people vomit, and that there was no higher ground that would allow villagers to escape the knee-deep water.
He said returning to the island would endanger the lives of his two youngest children.
"There’s no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the tribunal, according to the transcript. "Especially for my children. There’s nothing for us there."
The man’s lawyer said the family is currently living and working on a New Zealand farm.
Last week, an international panel of climate scientists issued a report saying that it was "extremely likely" that human activity was causing global warming, and predicted that oceans could rise by as much as 1 meter (3.3 feet) by the end of the century. If that were to happen, much of Kiribati would simply disappear.