Environment First Look

Climate refugees to be welcomed in New Zealand

New Zealand announced it will create a new refugee visa for Pacific Islanders displaced by rising seas. The nation says it is preparing for the possibility of a larger evacuation of island residents in the future as a result of ongoing climate change. 

Delegates walk past a poster showing a man holding a turtle and other pictures from the Pacific Islands during the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference 2017, hosted by Fiji but held in Bonn, Germany, on November 10, 2017. New Zealand is proposing a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders who are forced to migrate because of rising sea levels.
Alister Doyle/Reuters
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Caption
  • Lin Taylor
    Thomson Reuters Foundation

New Zealand is proposing a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders who are forced to migrate because of rising sea levels, the nation's new climate change minister said, as world leaders wrap up United Nations climate talks in Germany.

In the low-lying and vulnerable Pacific islands, the number of people moving within their own nations to flee worsening storms, sea level rise, and other climate-related crises is still relatively small.

But countries like New Zealand are making plans now before climate migration grows into a regional emergency.

"We want to get ahead of this before it turns into a real problem ... we want to start a dialog with the Pacific Island countries about this notion of migrating with dignity, if things get to that point," said climate minister James Shaw, leader of New Zealand's Green Party.

"One of the options is a special humanitarian visa to allow people who are forced to migrate because of climate change," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from the UN climate talks in Bonn, which were hosted by Fiji.

In 2014, a New Zealand judge granted residency to a family from Tuvalu, in part on humanitarian grounds related to climate change.

"The reason why we were throwing around an idea of a visa is because people who have been displaced by environmental conditions like rising seas and climate change aren't counted under the UN Convention on Refugees," said Mr. Shaw.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention grants refugee status to those fleeing persecution, wars, and conflicts, but does not include climate change as a reason to seek asylum.

Neighboring Australia said it would invest 300 million Australian dollars (US$226 million) over four years to help Pacific Islands cope with climate change, but was not planning to implement a similar climate migration scheme.

"The best response, where feasible, is effective adaptation and internal relocation, rather than cross-border resettlement as a first response," a government spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

Shaw agreed that the main priority was to keep Pacific Islanders in their own communities, which means slashing carbon emissions to prevent rising sea levels.

The Paris climate agreement set a goal of ending the fossil fuel era this century and to limit warming to "well below" two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, ideally 1.5 Celsius.

New Zealand's new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made tackling climate change one of her top priorities and committed last month to erase the nation's carbon footprint by 2050.

Shaw said he hopes to have formal talks with Pacific islands early next year to discuss the idea of issuing humanitarian visas for climate migration. 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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