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Pacific man in bid to become first climate refugee

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-10-17

A man from the island nation of Kiribati in the central Pacific appealed to a New Zealand court Wednesday to let him stay in the country as a refugee, claiming that rising sea levels had made his homeland unsafe to live in.

A Pacific islander has made a bid to become the world’s first climate change refugee, asking a New Zealand court on Wednesday to allow him to stay in the country due to the risks to his homeland posed by the effects of global warming.

Ioane Teitiota, from Kiribati in the central Pacific, launched an appeal at New Zealand’s High Court in Auckland to overturn a decision by immigration authorities to refuse him refugee status, made on the grounds his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

Teitiota, 37, 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 rising sea levels caused by climate change meant there was no land to which he could safely return.

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

“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.

'Basic human right'

Teitiota’s lawyer Michael Kidd acknowledged that his client’s New Zealand visa had expired but said he should not face deportation because of the difficulties he would encounter in Kiribati - a nation consisting of more than 30 coral atolls, most only a few metres (feet) above sea level.

“Fresh water is a basic human right ... the Kiribati government is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to guarantee these things because it’s completely beyond their control,” Kidd told Radio New Zealand.

He said Teitiota’s case had the potential to set an international precedent, not only for Kiribati’s 100,000 residents but for all populations threatened by man-made climate change.

If his appeal is successful Teitiota would become the world’s first climate refugee, Kidd said.

Kiribati is among a number of island states - including Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Maldives - the UN Human Rights Commission is concerned could become “stateless” due to climate change.

Kiribati government’s has raised the prospect of relocating the entire population or building man-made islands to re-house them if predictions the sea will rise by one metre (3.25 feet) by the end of the century prove accurate.

It has also moved to buy 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of land in Fiji to act as a farm for Kiribati if salt-water pollution means the islands in the former British colony can no longer produce crops.

Last month, leading climate change scientists said in a report that they are now 95 percent certain that human activity is the main cause of climate change and warned that the world is set to experience more heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels that could swamp coasts and low-lying islands as greenhouse gases build up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-10-17

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