Ioane Teitiota: opening the floodgates to climate change refugee recognition

By Alexandros Kassapis, GLOBUS Correspondent

When Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national living in the South Tarawa Island since the 1970s, sought to claim asylum in New Zealand on the grounds of being a climate change refugee in 2014, the legal lacuna governing displacement due to climate change related events was painfully exposed.

A refugee status entitles individuals to receive legal protection and material assistance by their host state. There are currently 26 million people in the world living as refugees in some corner of the world or another; but how do authorities determine whether an individual can be granted refugee status or not?

The relevant legislation can be traced back to the 1951 Geneva Convention, designed to address the immense displacement of human lives resulting from World War Two. The Convention constitutes the main international instrument of refugee law, offering protection to those fleeing war and conflict who face persecution along grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Sadly, it has not evolved to cover cases in which climate change related effects, such as sudden (flooding, storms) or slow onset events (rising sea levels, land degradation), have rendered people unable to sustain their livelihoods and have exposed them to severe risks.

To better comprehend what happened with Ioane Teitiota, it is necessary to first examine the Kiribati situation. The remote Republic of Kiribati consists of a group of 32 atolls and one raised coral island. Situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it comprises one of the first countries to see the sun rise and the only one that is scattered over all four hemispheres. It embodies white sandy white beaches with lush coconut palms and dense tropical vegetation, while the majority of the local population works on subsistence farming and agriculture.

Despite the idyllic sounding nature of the Republic, the future of Kiribati’s approximately 115,000 inhabitants looks grim: the island nation will likely be one of the first countries to pay the price of climate change. Scientific projections estimate that this tropical paradise will have become uninhabitable by 2100, while the local government has already started to make plans for its demise.

Kiribati is so vulnerable to the climate crisis because it is, on average, less than 3 meters above the sea level. This means its tropical atolls are severely threatened by rising sea levels, propagated by the expansion of water molecules exposed to heat and the melting of glaciers and vast ice sheets.

But what does this mean for the residents of Kiribati, such as Ioane Teitiota?

Freshwater in Kiribati’s capital and hub South Tarawa, home of Ioane Teitiota, has become scarcer due to saltwater contamination. The subsequent flooding levels has also forced people from nearby low lying islands to move to South Tarawa, triggering overcrowding and even more competition for the ever scarcer resources. Attempts to combat sea level rise by erecting 60 sea walls have proven to be ineffective, as they constantly become damaged by storm surges and high spring tides.

Meanwhile, the land is also increasingly eroding, fuelling a housing crisis and land disputes that have escalated into fatal conflicts. Kiribati had therefore become an untenable and violent environment.

Ioane Teitiota and his wife were witnessing the violence and deadly conflicts escalating on their own homeland. Their land was at times submerged up to knee-deep during high tides, while the wells on which they depended for water gradually became salinized. The couple observed their land, on which they depended for agriculture, being stripped of vegetation, as crops became difficult to grow and coconut trees were dying. The sea wall guarding their property was often damaged and required constant repair.

The situation was such when Teiotita, his wife, and their young children, boldly decided to move to New Zealand in 2007, seeking a safer livelihood and wishing to protect their children after receiving information from news sources that there would be no future for life in their country. When their immigration permits expired in 2010 and the authorities sought to deport his family, Teitiota optimistically filed an asylum claim on the grounds of being a climate change refugee in order to continue his families life in New Zealand.

His novel case unsuccessfully dwindled through domestic courts for a period of two years (from 2013-2015), as Teitiota sought to exhaust all domestic remedies in an effort not to be deported to Kiribati; first through the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, then the High Court, next to the Court of Appeal, and finally to the Supreme Court. All upheld the first court’s decision, stating that Teitiota did not face a risk of persecution and a link between his circumstances and the aforementioned Geneva Convention could not be found. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court recognised that climate change related disasters may increase the number of displaced people and that could create a pathway into the Refugee Convention.

Having therefore exhausted all domestic legal remedies, Teitiota appealed to the United Nations, claiming that New Zealand’s decision to deport him to Kiribati violated his right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The UN Court ruled in early 2020 that it is unlawful for governments to return people to countries “where the effects of climate change are such as to threaten their lives or expose them to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. The decision has being praised as the “tipping point” of climate refugee recognition, while legal scholar Jane McAdam commented that it has taken 25 years for the law to reach this point, celebrating a major development in the recognition of climate change refugees.

But still, the court decision did not amount to ruling in favour of Teitiota, whose claim for protection was once again rejected. The UN Committee stressed that Teitiota’s claim was “not as strong” when it came to his personal circumstances and the evidence that was presented before the court.

But if Teitiota’s circumstances are not enough, then what would be the personal circumstances required to trigger the recognition of a climate refugee? There are currently several active cases in New Zealand and Australia concerning climate refugees, and surely, if the Courts were to witness an accurate description of the severe living conditions in Kiribati, it would enable the Teitiota Principle to be followed.

It should also be taken into consideration that despite coming from the United Nations, the judgment is not formally binding on countries, but instead points to legal obligations that countries have under international law.

As 200 million people have been widely projected to fall under the unrecognised yet category of climate refugees by 2050, and the climate crisis is perpetually reinforcing already existing inequalities, I hope the urgent need for protection is further reflected on the international legal order. The Teitiota judgment surely is a step forward, despite the fact that Teitiota and his family are now back to Kiribati.

As I reflect on his case, I cannot help but imagine Teitiota’s futile efforts to pile up stones to support the sea wall protecting his property, or picture the rising waves strike his ancestral land and gradually engulf the atolls of Kiribati. I can only hope that one day, each one of the Kiribatians and climate change refugees worldwide manage to reach a safe, dry surface.

Do you want to explore some more content? Watch:

Anote’s Ark, a 2018 Canadian documentary film shedding light on the impacts of climate change on Kiribati.

Sun Come Up, an Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary film on the effects of rising sea levels on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea.

Header Image of Tabuaeran, an atoll in Kiribati via Pixabay

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