Climate 'refugee' loses appeal

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 17:55 26/11/2013

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A man from Kiribati, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels, has lost his final bid to live with his wife as refugees in New Zealand with their three New Zealand-born children.

Ioane Teitiota was denied refugee status by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal (IPT) and appealed to the High Court to overturn the decision.

The case, linked to global warming and sea-level rise, has attracted international attention.

However, in a written judgment issued today, Justice John Priestley rejected the bid.

A refugee under the United Nations convention was a person with a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds, he said.

It was abundantly clear that people who fled due to natural disaster or even global warming had become refugees in a way not caused by persecution, Justice Priestley said.

Teitiota's evidence of the impact of global warming had been accepted by the IPT and he was found credible.

He did not want to return to Kiribati because of the difficulties the family faced due to the combined pressures of overpopulation and rising sea levels.

The IPT had rejected his claim that he was a refugee under the terms of the UN Refugee Convention.

Justice Priestley said it was correct in its decision.

"But, as the tribunal correctly recognised, there is a complex inter-relationship between natural disasters, environmental degradation and human vulnerability," Justice Priestley said.

That meant environmental issues sometimes led to armed conflict.

Justice Priestley noted the IPT examined whether Teitiota "faced a real chance of being persecuted if he returned to Kiribati. The tribunal saw no such evidence."

Teitiota had family in Kiribati. While his standard of living would be less than what he had in New Zealand, it did "not amount to serious harm for the purposes of the refugee convention".

The appeal to the High Court was misguided, Justice Priestley said.

The plight of people in Kiribati raised humanitarian concerns and considerations.

"Unfortunately for the applicant, because he has chosen to remain illegally in New Zealand, he is, under current law, precluded from applying for an immigration permit on humanitarian grounds."

Justice Priestley said Teitiota's attempt to expand the definition of a refugee was impermissible.

"The optimism and novelty of the applicant's claim does not, in the context of well settled law and the current concerns of the international community, convert the unhappy position of the applicant and other inhabitants of Kiribati into points of law," he said.

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