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…


Kiribati and 100,000 climate migrants

Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) is an island nation in the central Pacific Ocean and currently home to 100,000 people. It is part of a division of Pacific islands known as Micronesia and has 33 coral island divided up into three groups: Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands. Several people from Kiribati have been in the news recently, because of the direct impact that climate change is going to have on the existence of these islands and their people.

As the arctic melts and sea levels begin to rise, the islands themselves will be washed away. The threats the communities face include access to land, water and food. The President is currently working to develop opportunities for people to migrate and find new homes. But as David Lambourne, Kiribati Attorney General, explains the existence of a people is at stake. “No culture wants to basically abandon ship and be spread to the four winds. Because I think everybody accepts that there is no way we could as a community retain our sense of identity. No country is going to accept 100,000 Kiribatis to come and set up a new country somewhere else.”

Watch this 5 minute documentary, where both President Anote Tong and Attorney General Lambourne in Kiribati explain the challenge that they and their people are facing today:

Climate change might meant the end of the Kiribati people. We need to accelerate the adaptation efforts for communities like those in Kiribati who are already facing the impacts of climate change.

Happy Birthday Occupy!

Photo Credit: Gene Taylor,

It’s not a coincidence that I am launching this blog on the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. One of the most beautiful successes of the Occupy movement has been to link different issues together under a shared political analysis. While right wing media critiqued Occupy Wall Street as lacking clarity, in actuality the analysis of our current crisis is in dire need of a more comprehensive framework. Housing foreclosures, student debt, private prisons, mass deportations and environmental degradation were being talked about in the same space. This is something that the non-profit-ization of justice-focused work has made more challenging over the past few decades. (For full disclosure, I am happily and fully employed by a well-established, national nonprofit organization.)

The past few weeks I have been engaged in some intense organizing for justice on the national stage and I found myself torn between issues. By day, I was spending my long work hours organizing against climate change and local environmental pollution; and by night, I was supporting the work of my friends in the struggle for immigrant rights. It was during this space that I was again deeply reminded of the need for progressive movements to align our interlocking struggles.

The past few weeks I also confirmed my fear that the climate justice movement and immigrant rights movements in the United States are rarely in communication with one another. (At least, several  major players on the national level are not.) And yet, we desperately need to work together in the coming years to deal with the global crisis of climate refugees and climate migrants (the direct overlap between climate change and immigration crisis in the undeniably potentially devastating form).

As the impacts of climate change grow more real every week, scarcity over resources like food, water and land will push more people to leave their homes and migrate to resource rich countries. One day many of the world’s poor will have nothing to eat but the rich. This blog is my attempt to link some of the conversations within these two movements. It is my call to action for the environmental and social justice communities to unite before we are torn apart. Afterall, we are the 99%.