A man from the island of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has adopted a novel approach towards his asylum bid – he has demanded to be permitted to remain in New Zealand because his native home is sinking into the ocean due to climate change and global warming.
According to reports, the Kiribati native, 37, and his wife, departed the atoll in the Pacific – 2,600 miles from New Zealand – six years ago due to rising sea levels. He now claims that climate change has made it too dangerous for him, his wife, and three New Zealand-born children, to return to Kiribati.
An impoverished assembly of some 33 atolls, Kiribati has about 103,000 residents and has been identified by scientists as highly vulnerable to climate change.
"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," the man told an immigration tribunal, according to a court transcript seen by Associated Press. "Especially for my children. There's nothing for us there."
But immigration officials in New Zealand have already denied his requests to stay in the country twice, rendering another judgment in his favor highly unlikely. Essentially, the immigration tribunal determined that since the man is not facing persecution in his homeland his asylum request has no validity.
AP reported that the Kiribati native’s attorney, human rights expert Michael Kidd, will take his client’s case to the High Court – and may take it all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The asylum-seeker is currently working on a farm with his family, his lawyer said.
Professor Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert at the University of Auckland, told AP that he admired Kidd's "ingenious arguments," and that, even if the Kiribati applicant loses his appeal, the case may lead to the expansion of the definition of a “refugee.”
Rimon Rimon, a spokesman for the Kiribati government, criticized his countryman in New Zealand.
"Kiribati may be doomed by climate change in the near future," he said. "But just claiming refugee status due to climate change is the easy way out."
Even if the Kiribati native’s legal case is shaky, fears of what global warming will do to low-lying islands is anything but.
Last week, a panel of climate scientists predicted that the world’s oceans could rise by as much as 3.3 feet by the end of the century. They have already been climbing by 0.1 inches annually since 1970. At this rate, many islands, including Kiribati, will vanish.
Kiribati's government is well aware of the danger posed by rising sea levels – among other measures, they are discussing with Japan a multi-billion-dollar plan to construct a floating island for its residents.
Two years ago UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Kiribati to meet with its President, Anote Tong, to discuss the threat that climate change posed to the island nation.
Ban described Kiribati as being on the “front of the frontlines” on climate change.
“I have seen for myself the real threats that are impacting on people. People are afraid of their own future, particularly young people,” he said.
“I am urging world leaders to act now. The high tide shows that it is high time to act. I was so surprised to see the impact of these high tides, inundating these villages and roads. That can be prevented if we act now. We have to live with nature, but if we use our wisdom and act now we can live harmoniously with nature.”