When it Comes to Climate Change Refugees, no Man is an Island

Debate over environmental migration spiked in October of last year as Kiribati islander Ioane Teitiota appealed to New Zealand’s courts to recognise him as the first climate change refugee. In late November, the courts refused the claim by Teitiota and his family, who hail from a country suffering under rising sea levels and environmental degradation.

Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, © 2009. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, © 2009. Some rights reserved.

Teitiota had lived in New Zealand for six years, fostering three children there. He sought refugee status, arguing that there is no land to which he could safely return with his family. “There is no future for us if we go back to Kiribati” he told courts. His appeal was dismissed for not fulfilling the legal requirements set out in international law, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the later 1967 Protocol.

The case of migration resulting from climate change results in a blurring of lines. The protection of refugees as set out in the Refugee Convention does not apply because its victims are not persecuted by a sentient being, but by the consequences of indirect and undirected global activity. Mr Teitiota’s defense argued to the courts that he was “persecuted passively” by environmental decline because the state of Kiribati failed to protect him from it. Although the suit was dismissed, it raises important questions about what it means to be a refugee. Losing one’s home and livelihood due to climate change is a structural, rather than physical kind of violence, but it equally victimises people by removing from them their basic human rights.

The Global Humanitarian Forum’s Climate Change Human Impact Report, estimates (conservatively, they say,) that climate change causes more than 300 000 fatalities and adversely affects 350 million people yearly. In addition to this they state that a further 400 million people are vulnerable to climate change, while 500 million people are “at extreme risk”. These numbers are also increasing yearly, and will do so for some time even if we halt our greenhouse gas emissions, as it takes approximately 20 years for a decline in emissions to halt global warming. The report states that nine in ten climate change deaths are due to gradual environmental degradation and change, while one in ten is due to a sudden onset of extreme weather resulting from climate change.

As the report highlights, climate change is a serious issue for the global population because it offsets a chain reaction that magnifies its effects, in addition to exacerbating prevailing issues.

Think of a region suffering from water scarcity. That scarcity reduces the amount of arable land and thereby aggravates food security. The reduced crop production results in loss of income for farmers and may bring malnutrition. Health issues arise that could further diminish economic activity as family members become too weak to work. With time, worsening environmental conditions combined with financial instability may force populations to migrate. Migration can then become a catalyst for social unrest if increased population density in the place of refuge causes resource scarcity.

–          Climate Change Human Impact Report 2009:9

The importance of climate change as a factor in population displacement can be hard to assess, especially as other factors such as work opportunities, poverty, conflict or population growth figure in as well. The problem arises when all predictions indicate that climate change caused by human activity, and its impact on the global population is on the increase, and that the biggest problems are yet to come.

Island nations such as the Seychelles, the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia and others suffer significant loss of habitable land due to rising sea levels, erosion, extreme weather and insufficient access to fresh water, arable land or (more likely in terms of Island States) yield from the sea. In fact, the countries most at risk from climate change are the developing states. It is paradox that the main contributors to climate change (the industrialised states), although acknowledging the mess that they are making (as illustrated by the numerous conventions, protocols, panels and reports), refuse to fully acknowledge the far-reaching consequences and their own accountability.

Neither the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), nor its Kyoto Protocol or the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNPCC) addresses the protection of environmental migrants, although the latter stated as early as 1990 that migration was likely to be the single largest consequence of climate change, “with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought.”

Granted, migration has long been a natural strategy for coping with environmental change (be it temporary, periodic or permanent), however, modern barriers set up by international law such as the enforcement of territorial integrity (border control), significantly inhibit this natural process. Although environmental migration is often a matter of internally displaced people, it can, as in the case of island states, transcend borders. Or, if it doesn’t, the socio-economic consequences certainly do.

In the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (2008), Kalkot Kelekele, the President of Vanuatu addressed the risk that “some of our Pacific colleague nations will be submerged. If such a tragedy should happen, then the United Nations and its members will have failed in their first and most basic duty to a Member and its innocent people, as stated in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations.’

The President of Nauru, Marcus Stephen, similarly declared that “the loss of land and resources and the displacement of people” was a matter for the Security Council, as it concerns “sovereignty and international legal rights”. In short, the truth is that environmental migrants fall between the cracks of international law. This has led the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) to call for an international framework to address these issues. Climate change, sadly, does not appear to be halting any time soon, and although the consequences may seem farfetched and far-off for many, we live in a highly globalised world and no man is an island when refugees swim ashore.

In a 2008 interview with the New Zealand Herald, the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, noted, “to plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that”. He continues, “maybe we have a few decades to address this but we believe that we should begin to address the issue yesterday.”



The Telegraph. 2013 (Nov 26th). Kiribati Climate Change Refugee Rejected by New Zealand. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/kiribati/10474602/Kiribati-climate-change-refugee-rejected-by-New-Zealand.html

Yu, Bobby. 2013 (Jan 11th). The Sinking Nation of Kiribati: The Lonely Stand Against Statelessness and Displacement from Rising Oceans. The Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Accessible at: http://www.ajelp.com/comments/the-sinking-nation-of-kiribati-the-lonely-stand-against-statelessness-and-displacement-from-rising-oceans/

Global Humanitarian Forum, Human Impact Report: Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis (2009). http://www.ghf-ge.org/human-impact-report.pdf

The New Zealand Herald (06/06-08), Doomed Kiribati Needs Escape Plan http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10514735

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