Govt focus on mitigating climate change, not climate refugees

The government remains focused on mitigating climate change impacts rather than preparing for climate refugees, despite a recent United Nations ruling.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

In a landmark ruling, the UN has said that people fleeing immediate danger because of the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home.

The judgement centres on Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota, who was denied asylum as a “climate refugee” in New Zealand and was deported 2015.

While the UN upheld this decision, Amnesty International researcher Kate Schuetze said the ruling set a global precedent.

“They’ve effectively opened the door to future claims, where there is very strong evidence of course, on those threats to the right to life, where countries may be in breach of their international obligations if they do send them back.

“There needs to be very real, tangible, immediate, and direct impact on that person’s life. So they said that the impacts of climate change getting worse in 10 to 15 years isn’t enough to grant someone the ability to stay now, or decide not to send them back now,” Ms Schuetze said.

The UN ruling – which is non-binding – is the clearest warning to countries that they may be breaching a person’s human rights if they send them back to a country at immediate risk of climate-related danger.

But Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the message from the Pacific on this issue had been clear.

“First and foremost they want us to focus on combating climate change, mitigating its effects, because they want to continue on as viable nations, viable communities on their islands now. They don’t want us to be focusing all of our attention on moving them to New Zealand or other parts of the world just yet”, he said.

Lees-Galloway said the UN’s ruling was in line with the government’s thinking.

“It’s not something we are actively working on at the moment, but we would expect that it’s something that needs to be addressed in the relatively near future. But right now our absolute focus is on mitigating climate change and supporting those Pacific nations”, Mr Lees-Galloway said.

Auckland Tuvalu community leader Fala Haulangi said the ruling was encouraging and people back on the islands are “just living in fear all the time because of the impacts of global warming”.

Haulangi said Cyclone Tino, which hit the region over the weekend, was a clear example.

“The things we are hearing from our people, our family members is where else can we go? Because Tuvalu is such a flat island. We have no hills, no mountains, or big buildings, where we can hide, there’s no where to hide. That’s the reality,” she said.

Haulangi wants the government to be more pro-active about its immigration policy for those affected by climate change.

“These things are happening already, what are we waiting for? Until my people are drowned or have been washed away completely? And that’s when we’re really going to wake up and do something,” Haulangi said.

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