The news this morning that a Pacific islander may have lost his fight to be recognised as a climate refugee by the New Zealand government reminded me of what a monumental task lies ahead for rights groups. Ioane Teitiota and his family are likely to be deported back to the island of Kiribati despite his claims that the impacts of climate change would put at risk their right to life there.
The Pacific will be one of the regions worst affected by climate change, with small island states especially badly hit. Sea level rises, droughts, storms and the impacts of warming seas on essential fisheries mean a bleak future, even if immediate global action is taken. The stakes are so high that regional governments say that aiming to keep temperature rises to below 2°C will push them above their safe limit of warming.
As I’ve watched the refugee crisis in Europe unfold at a distance, it’s struck me that rich countries in the Pacific like Australia and New Zealand could face similar mass migrations within a generation. The New Zealand government is currently resisting calls to double the quota of refugees it takes in. It may be more receptive to migrants from its own backyard but the question still remains as to whether those fleeing a hopeless existence because of the ravages of climate change will be given the same status as people affected by war or political persecution. In a recent article in the Guardian, Paul Mason argues that the media’s debate around the terminology used to refer migrants in Europe is essentially pointless. There is little difference in the desperation of someone escaping war in Syria or drought in Niger or persecution in Eritrea but only one of them would likely be given the status of refugee and granted asylum in Europe.
Rights groups therefore need to start preparing the ground for people forced to leave their homes because of desperate inequality or the ravages of climate change. Whether that is done through an appeal to the UN to broaden the definition of refugee or through advocating more generally for open borders needs further discussion. But it’s crucial at this stage that advocates don’t shackle themselves with arguments which divide the ‘deserving’ refugee from the ‘undeserving’ economic migrant.