As the onset of climate change becomes more and more evident, many issues are coming to light. One of the more intimidating concerns emanating as a result of from climate change is the emergence of a new class of refugees. Climate refugees are displaced citizens forced to migrate from their homes due to environmental effects that threaten their well-being.

Ioane Teitiota represents the first person to apply for refugee status as a climate refugee. He hails from the central Pacific nation Kiribati, which consists of a chain of thirty-three atolls and islands that stand mere metres above sea level. Teitioita moved to New Zealand as a legal guest worker several years ago, but when his visa expired he requested the New Zealand government not deport him and his family on the grounds that they should qualify as refugees. High tides that breach the seawalls of his community and rising sea levels that cause flooding, kill crops, and contaminate drinking water are endangering the residents of Kiribati. These factors, Teitiota argues, make his former home too dangerous and uninhabitable, and has driven him to request environmental asylum. 

Though Teitiota’s case is being fought only for himself and his family, it represents an imminent issue that many politicians, environmentalists, and human rights activists are concerned about. A projected 200 million to 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change in the next fifty years. Some stakeholders are requesting more action be taken on the part of countries and the international organizations. There is currently no international refugee status that recognizes climate change. While the environmental situation in Kiribati is making life increasingly more difficult for its 100,000 residents, the conditions do not fall within the scope of the UN refugee convention. When the UN drafted its convention on refugees in 1951, it was mainly concerned with war and persecution, not environmental issues. Now, many groups are calling on governments and the UN to formally recognize the plight of climate refugees and create legislation to protect them.  Though there is a lack of international legislation regarding the rights of climate refugees, some individual countries recognize their status. Finland and Sweden both passed legislation allowing people to apply for asylum for reasons related to climate change. These represent the only two countries in the world where such legislation exists.

Climate refugees aren’t simply a problem for island nations experiencing rising sea levels. The continent of Africa is expected to experience increased levels of desertification and extreme weather events, that will force people to migrate within their own countries at least. Coastal urban centres in all nations will be threatened by rising sea levels and severe tropical storms. As climate change becomes an increasingly apparent issue, its effects on humans will become too great to ignore.

As for Teitota, his first appeal was rejected by a lower New Zealand court on the grounds that he did not fall under the traditional international definition of a refugee. Teitiota has appealed his application to a higher court and the new verdict is pending.

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