Islander Seeking to Become First Climate Refugee to Be Deported

Villagers on the island of Abaiang had to relocate their village because of rising seas and erosion. They are standing in the sea where their village, which consisted of about 100 homes, used to be.

Photographer: The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
  • New Zealand to put Ioane Teitiota on a plane back to Kiribati
  • Case showed uncertain future faced by islanders as seas rise

A Pacific Islander whose bid to become the world’s first climate-change refugee drew attention to the plight of tiny nations at the front lines of global warming is to be deported from New Zealand.

Ioane Teitiota, 38, will be flown back to his native Kiribati, a string of coral atolls in the western Pacific Ocean, from Auckland on Wednesday because he no longer holds a valid visa, according to the immigration department. Travel arrangements are still being made for his wife, Angua Erika, and their three New Zealand-born children.

The deportation brings to a close a four-year battle by Teitiota, who sought asylum on the grounds that rising sea levels were making life in his island home untenable. New Zealand’s highest court rebuffed the case in July, saying climate change didn’t meet the definition of “serious harm” under the Refugee Convention. Associate Immigration Minister Craig Foss said late Tuesday he wouldn’t intervene to stop the family’s removal.

“This looks like the end of the road,” Phil Twyford, an opposition member of parliament who represents the Auckland voting district where the Teitiotas live, said by phone. “They’re being sent back to South Tarawa, which is basically just a shanty town on a sliver of atoll where the water is up to your ankles at high tide. The family is understandably gutted.”

Rising Seas

The United Nations estimates sea levels in the western Pacific are rising at about four times the average globally, submerging homes on low-lying islands, tainting ground water and poisoning farmland. Kiribati’s main hospitals have been flooded and causeways linking atolls damaged during tropical cyclones, which the World Bank says are intensifying in the region.

Teitiota’s case garnered renewed attention last week after he was arrested for overstaying his visa. Members of his community in Auckland, which has one of the world’s biggest Pacific Islander populations, presented a petition to parliament asking for a reprieve for the family.

Prime Minister John Key said Teitiota was an overstayer, not a refugee. Claiming asylum due to climate change wasn’t a credible argument given Teitiota’s visa had expired before he launched the refugee bid, Key said, according to Radio New Zealand. 

New Zealand and Australia have turned down at least 17 applications from Pacific Islanders seeking refugee status because of climate change over the past 20 years, according to research by Jane McAdam, a refugee law expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. While New Zealand’s ruling National Party says it is focused on mitigating the impact of rising sea levels on Pacific nations, Twyford said the country needs to be discussing the prospect of relocation with its island neighbors now.

“This is the next generation’s humanitarian and environmental crisis,” he said.

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