By Jasper Poole
In 2015, the Supreme Court of New Zealand became the unlikely scene of what is perhaps the first of many legal battles regarding the term “climate refugee”. It is this term that may identify one of the largest issues facing the world in the coming years as millions of people flee their homes and nations to seek safety across the globe.
In 2007, Ioane Teitiota and his wife Angua Erika arrived on a permit in New Zealand from the Island of South Tarawa, Kiribati . According to the account left by Ioane and the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, South Tarawa had little capacity to carry its population and these problems were being “exacerbated by environmental events and slow onset processes” . Although the language of the Tribunal was strictly coded and legal, it served as an acknowledgement of the devastating issue of rising sea levels facing the nation.
For decades, these concerns have been rampant for Kiribati. As far back as 2008, President Anote Tong stated his nation had reached “”the point of no return” . In a later 2015 interview, he spoke about how climate change affected his tenure as President, saying “[i]t’s already with us, we have communities which have been dislocated” . This environment saw people like Teitiota and his wife relocate to New Zealand.
Whilst in New Zealand, Teitiota and Erika had three children . Erika found work as a schoolteacher . However, in 2009 Teitiota’s permit expired and he was subsequently arrested by New Zealand authorities . Facing expulsion, Teitiota made the decision to apply for refugee status claiming protection under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) obliging New Zealand to accept a strong intake of refugees irrespective of their origin . However, Teitiota’s appeal to immigration officials was rejected, leading to him taking his case to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal .
However, this document of human rights cited by many refugee advocates failed to account for Teitiota’s case. When the UN Convention was passed in 1951, its legal definition was, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality” . This definition failed to account refugees fleeing due to reasons of economic or environmental calamities. Using the document as the legal framework, Teitiota’s appeal was rejected by the Tribunal, citing that concerns of environmental degradation in Kiribati did not amount to “persecution”.
On appeal to the High Court, it was argued that the issue of climate change warranted protection under the Refugee Convention . Such an appeal was then rejected with Priestly J arguing that the “attempt to expand dramatically the scope of the Refugee Convention is impermissible” .
Teitiota’s case was appealed to the Court of Appeal, and later the Supreme Court in 2015, where it was dismissed on both occasions . Teitiota, his family and his three New Zealand born children were deported . Angua Erika spoke of what had transpired, stating that “they said we are overstayers but we are not” and that they were simply “trying to find a better life for the kids” . Once back in Kiribati, Teitiota was interviewed and his message was blunt: “the sea level is coming up and I will die, like them” .
Then-Prime Minister John Key supported the decision of the courts, remarking that “some scientists are predicting a rise in sea level, if that’s the case then it will challenge those low-lying states and we understand that” . Some critics of Key’s remarks argued that it was tone deaf and failed to consider the present reality of climate change, and with that the imminent need for relocation. For a nation that has in some cases called for the imminent relocation of its people, the apparent lack of planning or willingness to accommodate on part of New Zealand’s government could come across as striking.
In 2013, Tong took to urging the evacuation of his country’s citizens and since then has participated in purchasing land in Fiji for that purpose . According to his 2015 estimates, “I see these communities leaving and having to relocate in five to ten years” .
In a legal sense, many argue that it would be appropriate for New Zealand and the international community to lobby for the status of “climate refugees” to be incorporated within the UN Convention on refugees. Although the traditional term “refugee” under the 1951 Convention does not apply to those fleeing environmental devastation, it must also be considered that we did not have to grapple with the prospects of global warming as a scientific concept, let alone consider its potential impacts in that era.
Many New Zealand officials and politicians have debated the solution for this upcoming problem. Some have suggested allowing a humanitarian visa for climate refugees . In 2017 however, following the rejection of two Tuvaluan families seeking asylum, Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman stated that allowing a humanitarian visa would be ill-suited, and that in order to preserve cultures a more collectivized systematic approach is warranted . She held that “The climate migration issue looks like it’s much broader than us coming up with a visa … Tuvaluans want to continue to be Tuvaluans” .
A further public policy concern is how New Zealand will respond as a nation when and if we are called to accommodate asylum seekers from our Pacific neighbours. According to some international observers, New Zealand as a nation has a consistent record of violating the rights of asylum seekers . In May 2015, a refugee vessel full of Rohingya and Tamil refugees claiming to be on course with New Zealand was intercepted by Australian authorities and taken back . In response to this, the then-Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei accused the New Zealand government of being complicit by not preventing Australia from pushing back the boats of asylum seekers . So far, the legacy of our neighbours’ Australia’s Pacific Solution has been the facilitation of offshore processing, and towing of asylum seeker vessels by their Navy, as well as policies they claim are necessary to preserve lives at sea and control borders. It is yet to be seen how we may act when the time comes .
In 2001, a refugee vessel carrying asylum seekers fleeing from conflict known as SIEV 4 made the dangerous journey to Australia . The vessel was subsequently intercepted by the Australian Navy and towed away. The sheer strain of being towed caused it to start sinking, resulting in children falling overboard and almost drowning . The idea of towing asylum seeker vessels was one of the many policies adopted by the Howard government following an influx of refugees . Many are concerned that our side of the Tasman Sea may be witness to such actions in the future. If someone claiming to be a “climate refugee” is not recognized as a “legitimate” refugee, New Zealand may not offer the same humanitarian support we otherwise would. Since the journey to New Zealand is so perilous, it may be seen by some that to prevent the horrific loss of life at sea, we must deter vessels from ever making such a journey.
Whilst, solutions differ, one thing is clear. New Zealand is slowly recognising potential calamitous outcomes, and that our country has an obligation towards its Pacific neighbours.
The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.