10 Oct 2013

Kiribati asylum seeker expected falls through a gap in NZ

5:08 pm on 10 October 2013

A law professor in Auckland says a Kiribati man seeking asylum in New Zealand because of climate change doesn't fit existing refugee categories.

After the application for refugee status was rejected, the case is to go to the High Court next week.

Professor Bill Hodge says while there might be sympathy for the man's plight, existing statutes and treaties provide no avenues for what can be seen as a collective disaster affecting Kiribati.

BILL HODGE: Unfortunately, he comes into almost a collective category, like an economic refugee. And our statute and the treaties that we've adhered to generally provide a remedy and you can have a better shot at getting refugee status if you personally are discriminated against, there's some persecution that has to do with your gender, has to do with your religion, has to do with your race. And he's simply one of the whole island nation that's being inundated. And that's a collective disaster, not an individual instance of discrimination. So he doesn't fit, although people will be sympathetic.

WALTER ZWEIFEL: So it's been a push by Norway and Switzerland in terms of this so-called Nansen Initiative to try to find a discussion basis among different countries around the world to deal with people that are just in this situation forced to flee or forced to move because this. Can you see a future for this initiative or any consensus being built on that?

BH: I can see a difficult pathway. The problem is that nations are more willing to say 'individual, case-by-case' basis for the person that we see in front of us. I think what would delay ratification and formulation of such a treaty is that it would create a status for possible a whole nation. Kiribati and the inundation of their islands, you've used the word 'desertification' and that could be the entire country of Mali. And some nations, perhaps New Zealand, perhaps Switzerland, would say it sets a dangerous precedent and it opens the door so widely we don't know how many would be coming through that door. So nations, I think... It's a worthwhile notion and it should be explored, but I think nations would be slow on the pick-up because of the collective nature of rights that would be created.

WZ: That, of course, leaves little hope for people in Kiribati should the process they have faced over the last few decades continue.

BH: I'm afraid what you're saying is probably correct, although Pacific nations, and I'm thinking of Fiji and Australia, as well as New Zealand, have been good with respect to jurisdictions like Banaba, or Ocean Island. When it suffered the degradation of its phosphorus it was no longer habitable, and they were taken up by Fiji. I think Pacific Island nations would have the willingness, when the crisis struck, that they probably will be reluctant to sign up in advance. So it'll probably be one of those things of a last-minute crisis when the waves are crashing on the gardens and destroying the houses. Then and only then will the nations of the Pacific, anyway, take it more seriously. That would be my guess.