Disaster and Migration in the South Pacific: A Failure of International Law – Pacific Standard (psmag.com)

A United Nations survey of South Pacific island nations highlights the necessity of easing mobility for climate refugees—and the importance of calling them refugees in the first place.

The rise of the oceans has Pacific island nations in a state of crisis. Tropical cyclones have become more frequent and more deadly: On average, at least 10 of them will hit these nations between November and April every year. Many of the islands sit just above sea level. With others, the elevation is measured in millimeters. In a bid to strengthen food security, Kiribati has spent millions of dollars buying land in Fiji from the Church of England, while citizens from the country’s outer islands have begun a steady migration to the somewhat more stable capital island of Tarawa.

These islands can’t lift themselves out of the water, though they’re doing their best. As the ice sheets continue their decline, projections for South Pacific populations become more dire by the minute, and we’ve already seen increasing rates of saltwater intrusion, drought, and storm surges. Internal migration is not a durable solution for the people of these nations, and international law does not afford refugee status to climate migrants. This September, New Zealand deported Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati man who’d come to the country seeking climate asylum; the Supreme Court of New Zealand had assessed the relevant body of international law and found no basis for recognizing Teitiota as a refugee. From the Court’s decision in July:

In relation to the refugee convention, while Kiribati undoubtedly faces challenges, Mr. Teitiota does not, if returned, face “serious harm” and there is no evidence that the government of Kiribati is failing to take steps to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation to the extent that it can.

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