“Persecution” or fear of “serious harm” if returned home are among the key words when it comes to nations granting newcomers refugee status under their own laws or international law. The grounds for such potential harm can be religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, fear of genital mutilation, violence, torture, and a host of other elements.
Being consumed by rising sea levels at home, however, isn’t one of the factors to win refugee status. In a Monday ruling, the New Zealand Supreme Court set aside a refugee application from a man from Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island nation 3,500 miles away from New Zealand that is suffering environmental degradation linked to climate change. The nation of 100,000 people, with some 30 atolls, is suffering from water contamination, flooding, and storm surges. Currently it’s only a few meters above sea level.

The former British colony has purchased about 5,000 acres of land in Fiji for crops, and its citizenry may have to relocate altogether if predicted rising sea levels continue. But none of those circumstances were enough for New Zealand to grant Ioane Teitiota, 38, refugee status. Had he won his case, Teitiota, his wife, and family could stay in New Zealand as climate change refugees under what would have been a first-of-its-kind decision for the international community.
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