14 Nov 2022

Refugee's bid for protected status due to climate crisis in Kiribati rejected

8:08 pm on 14 November 2022

By Jeremy Wilkinson, Open Justice multimedia journalist of NZ Herald

Bonriki-Buota bridge between islets over lagoon, South Tarawa, Kiribati, Micronesia, Oceania, South Pacific Ocean.

The refugee argued that his island home was now facing being uninhabitable. Photo: 123RF

A refugee has failed in a bid to receive protected status in New Zealand on the basis his island home is becoming uninhabitable, despite a United Nations ruling saying it's unlawful to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis.

While the man won't specifically be deported back to Kiribati, he hasn't been granted protected refugee status, which would prevent that eventuality.

The man has lived in New Zealand since 2008 after emigrating here with his family from Christmas Island.

However, he became liable for deportation after being charged with violent offending against another Kiribati national in 2010.

He appealed a deportation notice served to him in 2013, but has managed to stay in the country since then through appealing that deportation notice.

Now, in a decision released by the Immigration Protection Tribunal, he has unsuccessfully tried to argue that returning home to Kiribati would put him at risk of retribution from his victim's family and make life incredibly difficult due to rising sea levels and erosion on the island.

A landmark ruling was released by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2020 regarding another Kiribati native, Ioane Teitiota, who also pleaded to stay in New Zealand on the basis that his home island's population had exploded to 50,000 from 2000 in 60 years.

Rising sea levels meant the now-overcrowded island's inhabitants were forced to live in closer proximity to each other, which had led to violence and social tensions.

Teitiota argued that Kiribati was projected to become virtually uninhabitable in the next 15 years.

Ultimately, the courts in New Zealand found that his personal circumstances were not severe enough to warrant protected status, and the UN committee agreed.

However, it did acknowledge that cases like Teitiota's would become more frequent in the future and that governments had a responsibility not to return people to countries where their lives would be at risk due to climate change.

The committee's judgement was not legally binding, but highlighted the obligations that countries have under international law.

Last week, the Immigration Protection Tribunal found that, although the negative effects of climate change were getting worse in Kiribati, there were measures in place by the Government to stall and minimise their impact.

"While the tribunal accepts the appellant's evidence that, at the time he left Kiribati in 2008, his land was already suffering from erosion and he genuinely fears that he will now be unable to use it to sustain himself, there is no direct evidence to establish that his land has been eroded to a point of no utility," it said in the decision.

"There is no sufficient evidential basis for the tribunal to infer that, even if land physically remains, it has passed the point of habitability or is nearing that threshold."

The tribunal went on to say that multiple climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction projects and programmes have been, and are being, developed and implemented on the island.

However, their progress has been slow, and they've experienced financing and implementation problems.

They also noted that the man's village was only classed as being of "medium risk", despite also saying that: "There is no question that Kiribati is impacted by the adverse effects of climate change".

The climate change issues identified near the man's village were coastal erosion, depletion of fish stocks, overcrowding, lack of water, and poor-quality water.

"However, there is evidence that at present, climate change is not the main cause of coastal erosion, water shortages or overcrowding," the tribunal said.

"Other issues, especially population growth and the move to Western lifestyles, are having a more immediate impact."

The tribunal found the man did not meet the threshold to receive protected refugee status due to climate change, nor for his claims that he may face retribution from his victim's family.

* This story first appeared in The New Zealand Herald

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs