‘Climate refugee’ argues rising sea levels make life on Kiribati too dangerous

• October 1, 2013
'Climate refugee'

A 37-year-old man is fighting to stay in New Zealand, arguing that rising sea levels make returning to Kiribati too dangerous. Creative Commons: Rafael Ávila Coya, 2010

An immigrant from the Pacific Island of Kiribati is trying to convince a New Zealand court that rising sea levels make him a ‘climate refugee’.

The 37-year-old moved with his wife to New Zealand six years ago – and has since had three children – and is facing a battle with the country’s immigration authorities, who have twice rejected his argument that rising sea levels make it too dangerous for his family to return home.

The case is now set to be heard before New Zealand’s high court, and lawyers say they will take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Kiribati – made up of 22 coral atolls stretching across the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia – is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.

Home to over 100,000 people, none of the country’s atolls rise more than a few feet above sea level.

The New Zealand case will be watched closely by legal professionals, and could set a precedent for the tens of millions of residents in low-lying islands around the world.

In a transcript of the immigration case obtained by AP, the Kiribati man describes extreme high tides, known as king tides, that he says have started to regularly breach Kiribati’s defences – killing crops, flooding homes and making residents sick. New Zealand immigration laws prevent AP from naming him.

The man said that in about 1998, king tides began regularly breaching the sea walls around his village, which was overcrowded and had no sewerage system. He said the fouled drinking water would make people vomit, and that there was no higher ground that would allow villagers to escape the knee-deep water.

Returning to the island would endanger the lives of his two youngest children, he said.

“There’s no future for us when we go back to Kiribati,” he told the tribunal, according to the transcript. “Especially for my children. There’s nothing for us there.”

The man’s lawyer said the family is currently living and working on a New Zealand farm.

Read more: Guardian >>

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