As his homeland disappears under water, a man from Pacific Island nation Kiribati is battling to become the world’s first legally recognized climate-change refugee.
Ioane Teitiota, who is 37 years old, moved to New Zealand in 2007, along with his wife, to seek asylum. The couple now have three young children and Teitiota argues that returning to Kiribati would put the family in danger.
Made up of 32 atolls, Kiribati is one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with a population of more than 100,000. Teitiota has described extreme high tides which kill crops and cause sickness by contaminating drinking water.
His legal team argue that the current Refugee Convention is out of date and needs to incorporate people fleeing climate change.
Steve Trent, Executive Director at the Environmental Justice Foundation, agrees: ‘Climate change needs to be seen through a human rights lens,’ he says. ‘Tens of millions of people are going to be permanently displaced and at the moment they have no recourse to any kind of legal protection.
‘Policymakers, parliamentarians and those involved at a multinational level are being glacially slow in recognizing and addressing this. We have a moral, political and economic obligation to address this issue now. If we don’t, the costs will be far higher.’
After hearing his asylum appeal on 14 October, the High Court in Auckland reserved its decision and had yet to pronounce at the time of going to press.
On Tuesday 26 November, a New Zealand court ruled that Ioane Teitiota’s claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or a violation of his basic human rights. He now faces deportation unless he appeals to a higher court.