New Zealand Denies Asylum to 'World's First Climate Change Refugee'; Court Orders Deportation of Kiribatian

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By Reissa Su | May 13, 2014 12:23 PM EST

New Zealand's Court of Appeals has refused to overturn a lower court decision to deport the world's first climate change refugee Ioane Teitiota to his island nation of Kiribati.

The 37-year-old Kiribatian was a farmer and fisherman in his homeland. Kiribati is composed of 33 coral islands with a population of over 100,000. Teitiota has been staying illegally in New Zealand since October 2010 after his work visa expired. He claimed that New Zealand should grant him asylum because the low-lying islands of Kiribati is under threat due to global warming and rising sea levels, according to reports.

The government of Kiribati said "relocation" of the small nation's population will be inevitable. The court has noted that the appellant or Teitiota has expressed his wish not to return to Kiribati to avoid facing the growing threat of sea-level rise and the pressures of overpopulation.

However, the court of appeals has ruled that the Kiribatian's arguments are not included in the scope of the definition of a refugee as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention which was adopted by the United Nations. The Refugee Convention was meant to provide protection to those who do not want to return to their own country for fear of persecution due to one's race, religion, nationality, social group or political opition. The court ruling has given the final order for Teitiota and his family to leave New Zealand.

Teitiota has said there was no land in which he and his family can live on safely if they are forced to go back. Despite the claims of the world's first climate change refugee, the lower court judge has previously ruled that problems with the environment are not included in the list of internationally recognised criteria for Teitiota to be declared as a refugee.

The Court of Appeals said it sympathises with the plight of the Kiribatians but Teitiota's climate change refugee claims were "fundamentally misconceived." The court said its judgment should not be seen as a move to "downplay" climate change. It recognises the fact that climate change is a growing concern around the world. The court wanted to highlight the fact that climate change and its effects to low-lying countries like Kiribati are covered under the Refugee Convention.

Kiribati is located halfway between Australia and Ecuador. It has bought land in Fiji for the construction of a possible resettlement of its people displaced by rising sea levels. The land will also be used for growing food as the country views its resettlement plans as "migration with dignity."

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