What just happened in New Zealand? Did they really just create the first “climate change refugees”?

by | Aug 8, 2014 | Climate Change, Climate Displacement, Climate Migration, Sea level rise

What just happened in New Zealand? Did they really just create the first “climate change refugees”?

by | Aug 8, 2014

Alex Randall

Alex is programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition

Q an A on Zew Zealand’s Climate Refugee court case.

New Zealand did not just grant asylum to the first “climate refugees”. The family were granted residence in New Zealand on humanitarian grounds. The impacts of climate change formed a large part of the case. However, in the end, the court granted the family residency because of the close family ties they had in New Zealand.

Did the court grant the family refugee status because of climate change?

No. The impacts of climate change in Tuvalu were part of the family’s court case. The family made several legal arguments hoping to be allowed to stay in New Zealand. The case contained several refugee, human rights and humanitarian elements. The claim for refugee status because of climate impacts was rejected. Several human rights claims were also rejected. Finally the family made two arguments for residency on humanitarian grounds. The first was that the family now had strong family connections in New Zealand. They made a second argument that climate change had created a humanitarian situation in Tuvalu that the family could not return to.

The court decided that the family connections in New Zealand were enough to give the family residency.

So climate change had nothing to do with it?

Not quite. Having given the family residency the court went on to determine that it is possible, in general, that natural disasters could create a humanitarian situation. In the case of Tuvalu those natural disasters clearly have a climate change dimension. But the court did not take this into account when granting residency, the family connections were enough.

Can anyone affected by climate change now claim refuge in another country?

No. Firstly, a decision made by a court in New Zealand does not create an obligation for any other country. Second, the ruling was “discretionary”, which means that the ruling does not create a legal precedent, even in New Zealand. Headlines claiming that the “era of climate refugees has begun” are misleading. This doesn’t mean that the case is totally irrelevant internationally. While courts in other countries are under no obligation to consider this ruling, they could find the logic of the arguments persuasive.

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Has this altered the Refugee Convention?

No. The case reignited a debate about whether the Refugee Convention should be altered so that it does protect people fleeing the impacts of climate change. However, this case did not grant refugee status, so it has no bearing on how New Zealand deals with refugees in the future. It also has no effect on the Refugee Convention, which is international law. A number of scholars have argued that climate change means that nations should renegotiate the refugee convention.

This new Refugee Convention could protect people forced to move by climate change. There are several problems with this. First, identifying who has moved because of climate change is very difficult. So it would be almost impossible to define who this renegotiated Convention would apply to. Second, renegotiating anything comes with risks. There is the possibility that the protection afforded to existing refugees could be weakened during the negotiation process.

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How many people does this affect?

We don’t know. This news story has meant that many outlets have quoted various figures about the number of people who might be displaced climate change in the future. One outlet said that 300 million people might be fleeing climate change by 2050. Another stated that 32 million were displaced in 2012. These figures are are useful context, but it would be a mistake to think that the New Zealand ruling applied to all all of these people. As we’ve seen this ruling only directly affects New Zealand. More importantly most people who move due to climate change will move within their own country. They will never be in a position to seek refuge abroad.

Are rulings like this a good way of addressing migration and displacement linked to climate change?

Partly. Many other policies and projects will also be needed. The vast majority of people affected by climate change will move internally. It is vital that countries respect the rights of people who are displaced internally. It is also vital that countries allow people to move freely within their own country to cope with climate change impacts. In the Pacific many communities are embarking on planned relocation.

The legal status of the people who move is only one element of a relocation plan. A lot of evidence suggests that the success or failure of relocations depends on deep consultation with the moving and receiving communities. Many people will want to move but will be trapped. As climate change degrades livelihoods people may find it harder to move, even though they want to. Creating opportunities for people to migrate out of harms way is vital. In all of these cases the legal status of people who move is only one part of the jigsaw.

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