Man Asks for Asylum as Climate Change Refugee

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Oct. 18 2013 4:26 PM

Man Asks for Asylum as Climate Change Refugee

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TARAWA, KIRIBATI - JUNE 11: A traditional Micronesian canoe sits on the shore, 05 June 1999, as people cross a lagoon on an atoll of Tarawa in the central Pacific's Kiribati.

Photo by MICHAEL J. FIELD/AFP/Getty Images

A man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati has asked a court in New Zealand for refugee status because of the risks posed by rising sea levels:

Ioane Teitiota, 37, asked New Zealand's High Court in Auckland to let him appeal a decision that refused him asylum on the grounds his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.
Teitiota, who came to New Zealand in 2007 and has three children born there, said he and his family would suffer serious harm if forced to return to Kiribati, because there was no land to which he could safely return.
"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the appeal tribunal, adding that a return would pose a risk to his children's health.

Teitiota certainly isn’t the first climate change refugee--the government of Papua New Guinea has been evacuating the population of the shrinking Cataret Islands since 2003 and more than 32.4 million people were forced to relocate around the world due to extreme weather last year—but his request is unusual in that he’s asking for legal refugee status in another country due to rising sea levels.

Last year, Kiribati President Anote Tong announced that he was negotiating with Fiji to by land to move islanders whose homes were under threat. He suggested that the entire nation, most of which lies just six feet above sea level, may eventually need to relocate if mitigation efforts are unsuccessful. The citizenship status of these displaced islanders is likely to be a major dilemma for international law in the coming decades.   

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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