Ioane Teitiota, from the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, had hoped to become the world’s first climate change refugee. His low-lying homeland is likely to be engulfed by waves by the end of this century – and to become uninhabitable long before then.
But the Court of Appeal in New Zealand, where Mr Teitioa, 37, has been living since 2007, took an old-fashioned view of what constitutes a refugee. In a ruling yesterday, it called his case “fundamentally misconceived”, and an attempt to “stand the [UN refugee] convention on its head”.
The decision means Mr Teitioa and his family will be deported, as his work visa expired in 2010. Mr Teitioa was a subsistence farmer and fisherman in Kiribati, a string of 33 coral atolls, and he argued he faced “passive persecution” if forced to return home, as the government there was unable to protect him from climate change’s effects.
Rejecting his submissions, the Court of Appeal called them “novel” but “unconvincing”, and noted that millions of other people in low-lying countries were in a similar situation.
It added that while Mr Teitioa’s economic prospects might be better in New Zealand, “his position does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national”.
Storm surges and flooding are already causing environmental degradation in Kiribati, part of the former British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The water table is becoming contaminated by salt, making it difficult to grow crops there.
The country’s president, Anote Tong, has highlighted its plight at international forums, calling on wealthy, developed nations – those primarily responsible for global warming – to help Kiribati. With an eye to the future, the country has bought land in Fiji as a potential resettlement site.
It is also considering building an artificial island as an alternative home for its 100,000 population.
Mr Teitioa told the court that he and his family – including three children born in New Zealand – faced “serious harm’ if forced to return. However, the judges backed the view of the High Court and an immigration tribunal, which concluded that they “could resume their prior subsistence life with dignity”.
They also warned that if Mr Teitioa’s arguments were accepted there and in other jurisdictions, “at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare … would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention”.