Man Attempts to Become World’s First Climate Change Refugee

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 17 2013 7:52 PM

Man Attempts to Become World’s First Climate Change Refugee

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The Tarawa atoll is capital of the vast archipelago nation of Kiribati.

Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

A man from the small Pacific island of Kiribati is launching a novel attempt to claim refugee status in New Zealand based on the threat that climate change poses to his home island. Ioane Teitiota made his appeal to a New Zealand court on Wednesday that rising sea levels made his homeland unsafe to live in, France 24 reports.

Teitiota’s first attempt to receive climate change refugee status was refused by New Zealand immigration authorities on the grounds that it didn’t meet the legal criteria, namely the fear of persecution or threats to his life at home. Teitiota came to New Zealand in 2007 and has a family there, but his visa to stay has expired, according to his lawyer. As part of his appeal, Teitiota outlined how the island of Kiribati, which is made up of some 30 ring shaped coral reefs only a few feet above sea level, was under distress as “high tides breached seawalls and rising ocean levels were contaminating drinking water, killing crops and flooding homes,” according to France 24.

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In 2009, a report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees found that “sinking island states,” like Kiribati, “present one of the most dramatic scenarios of the impact of climate change.” An impact that may threaten the existence of these states creating a situation where “entire populations of affected states could thus become stateless,” according to the report.

According to France 24, Kiribati has an audacious backup plan, as its government “has raised the prospect of relocating the entire population or building man-made islands to re-house them if predictions the sea will rise by one metre (3.25 feet) by the end of the century prove accurate.”

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

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