Initial reaction to New Zealand’s “climate refugee” visa proposal

by | Oct 31, 2017

Initial reaction to New Zealand’s “climate refugee” visa proposal

Alex Randall

New Zealand’s climate change minister has announced that the government may conisder creating a new experimental visa for people fleeing climate change.

It’s hard to tell at this early stage exactly how the new visas will work. However, the language of “humanitarian visas” cleverly sidesteps one of toughest problems in climate migration law – how to pick out a group of people who are fleeing climate change, against people who are fleeing crises driven by other forces. By creating a broader humanitarian visa it may be possible to create a safe legal route into New Zealand, without getting caught up in trying to define exactly how to decide whether someone is fleeing climate change or not.

It is also not yet clear how this would fit with New Zealand’s existing commitments. In 2015 two “climate refugee” court cases denied refugee status to people who argued they were fleeing the impacts of climate change. However in these cases the courts did rule that right to remain could be granted on other humanitarian grounds.

So to some extent New Zealand already has the ability to grant people the right to stay on humanitarian grounds – which can theoretically include humanitarian crises made worse by climate change. Further exploration will be needed to ensure that this new proposal adds something new to what New Zealand can alreay offer people.

With the limited political space and time that climate-linked migration has in legislative bodies, it is important that any proposals add something new, rather than replicating something that already exists.

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Existing migration

It is also worth noting that there is already a great deal of migration between Pacific island nations and New Zealand. Many people already migrate safely and legally for work and education on a variety of existing visas. Any new visa to address climate-linked movement must be seen as one tool in creating safe legal routes – rather than a complete fix.

The language of “climate refugee” visas may not be helpful. For many people who are considering moving within the Pacific the idea of becoming a “refugee” is undesirable for obvious reasons. Migratory options that do not come with the baggage of refugee terminology may be more helpful.

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