Pacific man seeks climate change asylum in New Zealand

Reuters
Villagers watch the sunset over a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray
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Villagers watch the sunset over a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa in the …

By Gyles Beckford

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A Pacific Island man trying to flee rising seas and environmental risks caused by global warming in his home country of Kiribati asked a New Zealand court on Wednesday to let him pursue his claim as a climate change refugee.

The low-lying South Pacific island nation has a population of more than 100,000, but its average height of 2 m. (6-1/2 feet) above sea level makes it one of the countries most vulnerable to rising waters and other climate change effects.

Ioane Teitiota, 37, asked New Zealand's High Court in Auckland to let him appeal a decision that refused him asylum on the grounds his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

Teitiota, who came to New Zealand in 2007 and has three children born there, said he and his family would suffer serious harm if forced to return to Kiribati, because there was no land to which he could safely return.

"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the appeal tribunal, adding that a return would pose a risk to his children's health.

The case was targeted at outdated refugee laws, Teitiota's lawyer said.

"The refugee convention which came into effect at the end of the second world war needs to be changed, to incorporate people who are fleeing climate catastrophe, and what's happening to Kiribati in the next 30 years is a catastrophe," Michael Kidd told Radio New Zealand.

The High Court on Wednesday reserved its decision.

Last month, leading climate scientists said they were more certain that human activity was the main cause of global warming, which would bring rising sea levels to swamp coasts and low-lying islands.

Teitiota's claim for refugee status spelled out how high tides breached seawalls and rising ocean levels were contaminating drinking water, killing crops and flooding homes.

New Zealand's Immigration and Protection Tribunal accepted the genuineness of Teitiota's claims, but said he was in the same position as other residents of Kiribati, which was taking action to avert the impact of rising sea levels.

Kiribati has bought land in Fiji to grow food and build a potential resettlement site for people displaced by rising seas. It is trying to give its people skills to become more attractive as immigrants, an approach it calls "migration with dignity".

New Zealand and Australia, the two most developed countries in the South Pacific, have resisted calls to change immigration rules in favour of Pacific people displaced by climate change.

While conditions in Kiribati are difficult, there was little chance they fell within the scope of the refugee convention or the U.N. human rights convention, said Jane McAdam, an expert on refugee law at Sydney's University of New South Wales.

There was "certainly not the political will" to extend the laws to include climate change impacts, she added.

"We need a whole toolbox of responses," McAdam said. "We need to be looking at adaptation, we need to be looking at migration as a form of adaptation, we need to be looking at disaster risk reduction and then, of course, we need to look at humanitarian protection and assistance."

Kiribati, part of former British colony the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, comprises 32 atolls and one raised coral island, straddling the Equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii and spread over 3.5 million sq km (2 million sq miles) of ocean.

Kiribati video: http://link.reuters.com/reg88t

Picture slideshow: http://link.reuters.com/seg88t

Photoblog: http://link.reuters.com/bab88t

(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

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