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Refugee status for climate change victims?

20 December 20170 comments

New Zealand could become the first country in the world to recognise climate change as a valid reason for people to be granted a refugee visa, according to the nation’s climate change minister.

New Zealand’s newly elected government is considering creating a new visa category for Pacific Islanders displaced by climate change.

The proposal came at the end of United Nations climate talks in Germany.

If enacted, New Zealand’s initiative would offer up to 100 humanitarian visas per year in an experimental trial.

Countries across the Pacific, such the low-lying island nation of Kiribati, say New Zealand’s announcement comes as a welcome gesture of regional solidarity.

Coastal erosion and freshwater contamination are already impacting the lives of Kiribati’s 110,000 citizens. More than 30 of the nation’s islands are an average of just two metres above sea level.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention does not cover people displaced across borders due to climate change.

Though Fiji has previously committed to providing future climate refuge to Pacific neighbors, the New Zealand proposal marks the first time a developed country has considered addressing the international legal protection gap with a regional visa agreement.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the proposal is a “piece of work that we intend to do in partnership with the Pacific Islands”.

Kiribati’s government is currently implementing various adaptation measures, including sea walls, artificial land reclamation and rainwater tanks to combat the effects of rising sea levels.

And former Kiribati President Anote Tong last year announced an ambitious plan of his own to help Pacific island nations adapt to rising waters.

Called ‘Pacific Rising’, it was likened to a Marshall Plan for low-lying Pacific nations.

Mr Tong said the plan was needed because the Paris climate change agreement to limit global emissions came too late for places like Kiribati.

“The momentum of what’s already in the atmosphere will ensure that we continue to be submerged under the rising seas,” he said.

“So we had to devise an alternative plan in addition to what’s already there.”

According to the UN, there’s been a reluctance to plan for relocation on the international stage out of a concern that talking about adaption would reduce pressure on big polluters to cut emissions and fight climate change.

Part of the Pacific Rising plan, which is backed by the NGO Conservation International, is to be a platform to raise funds from foreign governments and private philanthropies for adaptation projects, including infrastructure to preserve drinking water access and disaster preparedness.

Mr Tong said one component of the plan is to work with engineers from the United Arab Emirates, a country famous for its artificial floating islands, to dredge lagoons in Kiribati and deposit sand on the islands to raise their elevation.

He acknowledged that the effort is last-ditch and unproven.

“This is why we must do it as soon as possible so we can find out if it will work,” Mr Tong said.

“The technology, the science, the engineering is still in the process of being developed. We cannot develop it without even trying to do it,” Mr Tong said.

“I think we should not just give up.”

Mr Tong said he has been talking with governments in the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and South Korea about adaptation plans, though he provided few details about concrete commitments.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist