27 Nov 2013

Refugee group says onus on NZ to help neighbours

4:26 pm on 27 November 2013

The Refugee Council says the United Nations must look at the plight of people fleeing from climate change catastrophes and New Zealand should look at how it will help its Pacific neighbours.

A court in New Zealand has rejected an application by a father-of-three from Kiribati claiming asylum due to rising sea levels, environmental degradation and over-population in his home country.

Ioane Teitiota is facing deportation after overstaying his visa and sought leave to appeal against an Immigration and Protection Tribunal decision at the High Court in Auckland on 26 October this year.

His lawyer told the court how high tides breach sea walls on the island and that the ocean is contaminating drinking water, killing crops and flooding homes.

Justice Priestly ruled that the claim fell short of the legal criteria for refugee status and upheld the original immigration tribunal decision. He said there would be no sustained and systemic violation of Mr Teitiota's basic human rights if he returned to Kiribati.

Mr Teitiota's lawyer Michael Kidd said he is considering an appeal on a number of points. Immigration New Zealand says it will take no action to deport the family until the appeals process has been exhausted. Mr Teitiota has 28 days to seek a further hearing.

A spokesperson for the Refugee Council, Gary Poole, said the Refugee Convention does not help climate change victims, so new action by the UN may be needed.

"Let's say that one of the lower lying Pacific islands was eventually overwhelmed by rises in the sea - then those people are going to have to be resettled and, yes, the nations of the world that have contributed to climate change are going to have to help them build new lives. The planning needs to be done for that well in advance."

But an environmental lawyer says updating international refugee criteria to include climate change could cause the system to fall apart. Vernon Rive, from AUT University Law School, said he rejects suggestions that the Refugee Convention needs to be updated.

Mr Rive told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme that people seeking asylum are finding it difficult enough as it is, and the system would become completely inundated if it was also opened to those seeking refugee status on environmental and climate grounds.