Kiribati Man Denied Climate Refugee Status

There is a serious need for us (the US, UN and the world) to examine our legal definitions and protections for people who are relocating because of the impacts of climate change. This is no longer simply  an academic exercise.

Earlier this month, a man from Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas, learn more about this country at my earlier post here) applied to New Zealand immigration authorities to be considered a “climate refugee”. In his application, he explains that he fears for his children’s future on the coral atolls Kiribati, since the sand island they live on barely sit above sea level. But refugees are strictly defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as people who are being prosecuted  on account of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The Refugee Convention makes no reference to relocation based on environmental threats. His application was refused. Read more about the man’s story here.

In an article covering this story for the Huffington Post, attorney, activist and author Brook Meakins explains:

“Advocates for the victims of climate change often use the evocative terms “climate change refugee” when referring to individuals who must relocate due to climate change related impacts. Academics and those that know refugee law have appropriately criticized the use of this term, pointing out the fact that well-settled refugee law simply excludes climate change victims from its definition. Still, it is quite frequent in my line of work to hear the term climate change refugee. I have been guilty of this in the past — it is very tempting to use the word “refugee” when advocating for those that have to move from their homes, villages, and countries through no fault of their own. I have stopped using the term, however, because, in addition to the fact that it is simply inaccurate, it also conveys a false sense of legal and international hope for the victims of climate change. If we think an international legal framework has already been carved out for these people, it provides a sense of relief that, in this case, we simply cannot have. It is dangerous to believe that there are answers and protections for these people because that is simply untrue.”

Meakins has me thinking about what terminology does justice to these people. How to create a collective language that explains the threats and political challenges soon millions of people will be facing. Going to write a post on terminology soon and why I choose to title this blog climate migrants as opposed to climate refugees…


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