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Kiribati: What makes a 'climate refugee'?



The Pacific island of Kiribati is doomed to disappear. Its people are fated to become a generation of climate change refugees. The direction jurisprudence on this will take is not merely of academic interest.

Aerial view of South Tarawa, the capital and hub of the Republic of Kiribati and home to approximately half of Kiribati's population. (Government of Kiribati / Wikimedia Commons)The term 'climate change refugees' is coming into vogue and even Australia, whose politicians resist accepting its gloomy and turbulent realities, risks producing its very own. In the words of climatologist Michael Mann, 'It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation. In that case, yes, unfortunately we could see Australians join the ranks of the world's climate change refugees.'

At the legal level, the debate about culpability for climate change inaction has found form in some 1300 legal actions across 28 countries, the vast majority of them being lodged in that land of litigation, the United States. As Joana Setzer of the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics pointed out last year, 'Holding governments and businesses to account for failing to combat climate change has become a global phenomenon.'

In the legal field, the idea of expanding the categories of refugees that arise from climactic disaster is as bold as any, and has generated its share of supporters and sceptics. A remarkable effort to do so came in the New Zealand case of Teitiota v Chief Executive Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (2014), the first recorded instance of climate change being cited as a basis for refugee status, though the man in question, Ioane Teitiota, failed to convince the courts.

New Zealand's various judicial channels found against the Kiribati national, claiming that he did not satisfy the definition of refugee within the conventional understanding of international law. This was a different sort of threat to his livelihood, rooted neither in political oppression nor in tyrannical cruelty.

At stages of the appeal process, however, there was acceptance on the part of various judicial officers that climate change was a serious matter affecting Kiribati. The Immigration and Protection Tribunal, for instance, acknowledged 'that the limited capacity of South Tarawa to carry its population is significantly compromised by the effects of population growth, urbanisation, and limited infrastructure development, particularly in relation to sanitation'. These effects had been 'exacerbated by the effects of both sudden onset environmental events (storms) and slow-onset processes (sea-level rise)'.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that, in being returned to Kiribati, the applicant did not face the prospect of 'serious harm' and could not be granted asylum. Nor was there evidence that the Kiribati state had failed to take adequate steps to combat the effects of environmental degradation. Teitiota was subsequently deported.


"Even the UNHCR has preferred the tag of 'environmental migrants' rather than refugees. But words and categories change."


The last option open to Teitiota was the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a body not always governed by the rigidity of black letter law. In its decision this month, the majority of the HRC did not find the deportation unlawful, there being no immediate danger to Teitiota's life on account of climate change. They also noted that 'the timeframe of ten to 15 years, as suggested by the author, could allow for intervening acts by the Republic of Kiribati ... to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, to relocate the population'.

That said, it was incumbent upon decision-makers to take the degrading nature of climate change into account when examining future deportation appeals. In the majority's words of warning, 'Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under Articles 6 [the inherent right to life] or 7 [the right not to be tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment] of the [International Convention on Civil and Political Rights], thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.' States had to be on guard not to return future applicants to places of imminent danger.

Criticism has been heaped from across the spectrum. Former Fleet Street editor Damian Wilson was one. 'Irresponsibly, the UN human rights committee, in claiming that "something must be done" in its deliberations over the Kiribati family, has ducked out of directly helping them in any practical way, burnished its woke credentials and simply piled on the misery in the climate change mess.'

Others see the issue of climate change as merely one feature in forced migration, though there is an acceptance by President Bill Clinton's former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta that current legal standards are 'not equipped to protect climate change migrants, as they are no legally binding agreements obliging countries to support climate migrants'.

Even the UNHCR has preferred the tag of 'environmental migrants' rather than refugees. But words and categories change. Definitions can be stretched. The Human Rights Committee, albeit modestly, has done so.

Those intent on building walls will find little cheer in it. Those wishing to see breaches in the barriers of receiving states will take encouragement from the words of one of the two dissenting members of the HRC, Duncan Laki Muhumuza of Uganda, who openly found for Teitiota. The effects of climate change in Kiribati 'are significantly grave, pose a real, personal and reasonably foreseeable risk of a threat to life under Article 6(1) [of the ICCPR]. Moreover, the Committee needs to handle critical and significantly irreversible issues of climate change, with the approach that seeks to uphold the sanctity of human life.'



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Aerial view of South Tarawa, the capital and hub of the Republic of Kiribati and home to approximately half of Kiribati's population. (Government of Kiribati / Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Kiribati, climate change, refugees



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"The Pacific island of Kiribati is doomed to disappear. Its people are fated to become a generation of climate change refugees." Very true! And Australians who continue to vote for politicians who are very tardy in reducing emissions will have this on their consciences, plus much, much more, including the demise of millions of Australian animals.

Grant Allen | 24 January 2020  

“The Pacific island of Kiribati is doomed to disappear.” Not true! Paul Kench of Auckland University’s School of Environment found the three most densely populated islands in Kiribati increased in size by between 12 and 30 per cent over 60 years. Then Michael Mann, who was central to the Climategate scandal, uses the bushfire tragedy to promote his political and ideological goals on climate policy. Mann’s Hockey Stick Graph was adopted as a poster for the IPCC’s campaign to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions. But climatologist Tim Ball challenged the veracity of Mann’s research and famously declared: “Michael Mann at Penn State should be in the state pen, not Penn State.” Mann sued Ball for defamation but then failed/refused to produce data to verify his graph, and last year his case in the British Columbia Supreme Court was dismissed. What’s the real goal here: “Change the economic development model” (Christian Figueres, former UN climate czar); “We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy” (UN climate expert Ottmar Endenhofer); “Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing” (Saikat Chakrabarti, former chief of staff to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

Ross Howard | 24 January 2020  

If it is accepted that refugees are those whose lives are genuinely endangered and that any others who seek refuge are potential migrants, who may, or may not, fulfil the normal requirements, I think that clarifies things. The environment of Sub-Saharan Africa is degraded, many of its governments are corrupt and there is much tribal and religious strife, including terrorism. Many of its people go to North Africa, where they are loathed, exploited, tortured, raped, enslaved and possibly killed. Many who cross to Europe become illegal immigrants who are exploited all over again. Whatever the UN and it agencies say, this is not working. These people are not interested in the ongoing debate on climate change nor the latest pearls to fall from the lips of the Prince of Wales in Davos, where the rubbish bins get better food then them. Something needs to be done in their own home countries. Leadership changes and honest government may be the answers. No more corrupt kleptocracies.

Edward Fido | 25 January 2020  

Why does the author suppress the fact that applicant Teitiota's island, South Tarawa, has, according to the best science, *increased* in size in recent decades? How is this not denialism?

HH | 27 January 2020  

If Kirabatu received the appropriate funding,the main islands could be walled with concrete blocks. The poldar method used extensively in the Netherlands shows that it is a very successful method of creating land and backfilling with stone that is shipped in in barges. Kirabatu has also purchased an Island in the Fijian chain to relocate its population in the event of eventual land submersion.

francis Armstrong | 28 January 2020  

Well said Ross Howard and Edward Fido. Eureka Readers could do well to read this week's Spectator Australia for excellent articles on CO2 (it is good stuff!) and the need for an international Climate Science Debate a la the famous Oxford Debate of 1860 between Thomas Huxley (for Charles Darwin's science) and Bishop 'soapy' Sam Wilberforce (for 'Authority') on the Evolution of the Species and Natural Selection. Christopher Monckton, Ian Plimer et al would wipe the floor of Michael Mann, All Gore and company!

Gerard Tonks | 28 January 2020  

Presumably, possession is nine-tenths also of international law. Will it be prudent of Australia to be policy-agnostic about climate change, natural or anthropogenic? An officially open-minded policy allows Australia to plan for agreements with Oceania nations supposedly at risk of going under the waves to resettle their populations when the deluge comes under group identities such as, for example, ‘The Republic of Nauru in Australia’, so that the current territorial waters and the resources they contain or exist over do not become internationalised but remain under the ownership of the virtual state and the influence of the host nation for such purposes as excluding civil and military passage by hostile imperialisms. Australia could rent Nauru (or some other virtual nation’s) waters for, say, one hundred years at a time, giving the virtual nation an income, with the US, which has actual territorial skin in the Pacific from such possessions as Hawaii and American Samoa, doing the same for other ‘Atlantis’ states, thus sewing up the southern Pacific as a Christian/Western, democratic and thus a ‘pacific’ space.

roy chen yee | 29 January 2020  

Binoy is right to quote experts on climate patterns and human induced Climate Change. I get fed up with the mantra from climate change skeptics that human induced climate change is not proved or it is a myth . I wonder how long we are going to argue while the world burns- literally ! As I compose this response, less than 10 kilometers from my house, volunteer fire fighters are engaged in trying to prevent loss of life and property. The science is proved and supported by plenty of observation and theory. Debate is ended , now is the time to act. Soon we will be seeing climate refugees on our doorstep. Will we treat them the same as the refugees fleeing disasters in the Middle East? The idea of building dykes around Pacific Atolls simply proves to me that sea level rises are real. It seems a very expensive and unaffordable solution to a human made problem stemming from greed and hubris of God's creation.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 February 2020  

I am not a climate change sceptic, Gavin O'Brien, but I certainly think the finding in the Teitiota case proved he was not a genuine refugee as normally accepted by Law. Presumably his case was either funded by Legal Aid or by an interested party. It failed. We need to move on from there.

Edward Fido | 02 February 2020  

Gavin, I sympathise, and I commend your empirical work over the decades, but are you claiming that the 1 degree C warming since about 1850 is causing or seriously aggravating the bushfires around Canberra? As I've said before, there were major bushfires in the Australian Alps a month or so back when the maximum temperature up there was a mere 25 degrees.

HH | 03 February 2020  

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