Briefings urge block on climate 'refugees'

The overnment is being advised not to accept as refugees some of the estimated millions of Pacific Islanders who are likely to be displaced by climate change.

Anywhere between 2.3 million and 150 million people are expected to be forced from the Asia-Pacific region by a combination of rising sea levels and devastating storms.

Many of these are expected to become "environmental refugees" - and to turn to New Zealand.

But ministerial briefing papers released to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act reveal the Government is being advised they should not be granted refugee status.

A more correct term for them was "environmental migrants", as the term "refugee" referred to people being persecuted.

Those displaced by nature were not covered by international law, the documents say.

"We do not consider it is appropriate to bring environmental migrants within the mandate of the Refugee Convention."

There was also no provision in New Zealand's immigration law that covered such people.

The documents say that, contrary to popular belief, New Zealand does not have any agreements to accept migrants from the Pacific "fleeing the effects of climate change".

However, this would be kept under review, and more specific policy could be developed later. New Zealand allows a limited number of people from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu to gain residency in this country.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate-change impacts said rising sea levels would accelerate erosion, flood agricultural land and ruin fresh water supplies in the Pacific.

Tropical storms and cyclones were expected to become more intense.

Coral reefs and fisheries would be hit, and human health and tourism jeopardised.

New Zealand could expect more demands to be placed on its aid programme, the documents said.

Government body NZAid plans to spend $205.6 million on Pacific aid over 2007-08, and is developing ways to address climate change in the region.

RMS Refugee Resettlement chief executive Peter Cotton said climate change was emerging as a huge threat, both globally and in the Pacific.

"This could cause the greatest migration in human history."

In his personal view there was much planning to be done - "and it needs to be done now".

If a devastating storm rendered a Pacific nation uninhabitable, Mr Cotton was confident the Government would act swiftly to deal with displaced people, given New Zealand's record of helping in the aftermath of natural disasters.

A Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said it recognised the threat climate change posed to Pacific nations, "including the many small island developing states most vulnerable to its impact".

The Dominion Post