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Visas for climate change induced displacement: a band-aid solution

In 2017 New Zealand announced it would consider creating a new visa category to help relocating people in the Pacific displaced by climate change. The new visa category would have been a world’s first and would be open to residents from Pacific Islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu. However recently, the country has backtracked on this decision.

The visa category was announced after New Zealand’s immigration tribunal rejected two families from Tuvalu who had applied for refugee status in New Zealand due to the effects of climate change. This case follows the 2014 NZ Supreme Court ruling in which Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati had argued to become the world’s first climate refugee. In this case the NZ Supreme Court confirmed previous court decisions, climate change was not a category for refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention and it was not for the Court to alter the scope of the Refugee Convention. The court stated that a ‘sociological’ refugee or person seeking to better his or her life by escaping the perceived results of climate change is not a person to whom Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention applies.

It is currently not possible to classify a displaced person as a climate refugee. When people become displaced or move due to the effects of climate change, forces behind this decision are usually very complex. Climate change on its own is rarely the only reason, humanitarian, economic and political reasons play a part as well. New Zealand’s initial proposal was to create a new visa category classifying climate change as a humanitarian crisis instead of defining climate change as a category to obtain refugee status, thus side-stepping from the difficulties it would pose under the Refugee Convention. By defining it as a humanitarian crisis, the NZ government solved the difficulty of climate change not being a category for refugee status.

In an interview with former US presidential candidate Al Gore in 2017, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern iterated that she intended to discuss the visa scheme with Pacific nations and start with 100 places annually. “We are anchored in the Pacific. Surrounding us are a number of nations, not least ourselves who will be dramatically impacted by the effects of climate change. I see it as a personal and national responsibility to do our part”.

New Zealand has recently stated that it will not adopt the visa scheme without the approval of Pacific island nations. Climate Change Minister James Shaw stated that feedback from island nations indicated that gaining refugee status was a last resort. “They want to stay in their homes and their homelands. The islands themselves made it clear that it’s not something that they want us to unilaterally do. This is something that needs a multilateral dialogue between New Zealand and the islands.”

While New Zealand’s visa scheme is innovative, it is also a band-aid solution. Most of human displacement caused by climate change is internal, for these people a visa scheme is not going to help. Climate change is not a legislative problem, but a political one. While developed nations such as New Zealand can assist those fleeing from climate change on an individual level, the issue of climate change needs to be better addressed on an international level. Focus should be placed on adaptation, mitigation and resilience.

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Rene Perey

Rene Perey