SAN DIEGO – Ioane Teitiota and his wife fought for years to stay in New Zealand as refugees, arguing that the rise in sea levels caused by climate change threatens the very existence of the tiny Pacific island nation they fled, one of the deepest Countries of the world.
While New Zealand courts did not deny the flood posed a risk to Kiribati, roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia, laws dealing with refugees did not address the danger, so the government deported them.
No nation offers asylum or other legal protection to people who have been specifically displaced because of climate change. President Joe Biden’s administration is investigating the idea, and climate migration is expected to be discussed at his first climate summit, practically held on Thursday and Friday.
On the day the summit begins, Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts plans to reintroduce legislation to address the lack of protection for those who do not conform to the narrow definition of “refugee” under international law. It failed in 2019.
“We now have a greater chance than ever of achieving this,” Markey said in a statement to The Associated Press, citing Biden’s climate diplomacy and greater awareness of the problem.
The idea still faces enormous challenges, including defining a climate refugee when natural disasters, drought and violence are often intertwined in regions like Central America.
If the US defined a climate refugee, it could mean a significant change in global refugee policy.
Biden has hired National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to determine how people directly or indirectly displaced by climate change can be identified and relocated. A report is due in August.
It makes sense for the United States to lead the way as the main producer of greenhouse gases, proponents say.
“No nation in the world has taken the lead to address this reality we are facing today,” said Krish Vignarajah, director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “It’s not a problem that we can solve in 20 or 30 years. We hope the US can take strong action that will have a ripple effect on other nations. “
According to the United Nations, up to 200 million people worldwide could be living with climate displacement by 2050.
A report by the World Meteorological Organization published on Monday showed that this is already happening. Since 2010, an average of 23 million climate refugees have been registered each year and in the first six months of last year almost 10 million, particularly in Asia and East Africa. Most moved within their own country.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines “refugee” as a person who has crossed an international border “for a reasonable fear of being persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” .
Some argue that this is out of date, but few expect changes to the international agreement to take account of those fleeing from rising sea levels, drought, or other effects of climate change.
The US may define the displaced as climate migrants instead of refugees and offer them humanitarian visas or other protective measures.
Biden ordered the idea to be investigated after the United Nations Human Rights Committee last year made a landmark decision on a complaint filed by Teitiota against New Zealand.
Teitiota argued that his 2015 deportation violated his right to life. He said salt water from rising seas destroyed land and contaminated water supplies on Tarawa Island in Kiribati. Scientists say the impoverished series of 33 atolls are among the countries hardest hit by climate change, with around 103,000 people.
The committee said Teitiota was not in imminent danger at the time of his asylum application and rejected his case. However, it may be illegal for governments to send people back to countries where the effects of climate change expose them to life-threatening risks – from hurricanes to land degradation.
“This decision contains new standards that could promote the success of future asylum applications in connection with climate change,” said committee expert Yuval Shany.
Nevertheless, it is not easy to identify climate refugees, especially in regions full of violence. In Central America, for example, thousands leave their villages initially due to crop failures due to drought or floods. They often end up in cities where they become victims of gangs and eventually flee their countries.
“It is a threat multiplier, and therefore creating a status or category would have to address this complexity rather than ignoring it or looking for ‘pure’ climate refugees,” said Caroline Zickgraf, who studies how climate change affects migration at the Belgian University of Liège affects. “Does someone have to prove that they have been displaced by climate change? This is an extraordinary, if not impossible, thing to ask of someone. “
Carlos Enrique Linga traveled to the U.S. border with his 5-year-old daughter after successive hurricanes caused landslides and floods that destroyed more than 60,000 homes, including Linga’s farm and home, in Guatemala alone.
He said he made the dangerous trip north because he needed to feed and clothe his children, including two-year-old twins who were left with his wife.
“To get here, we had to sell every crop we had,” said Linga, who stayed at a Texas animal shelter last month after US immigration released him and his daughter, to pay a smuggler.
He hoped to find work in Tennessee, where a friend lives, and send money back to Guatemala.
Global warming is shifting the migrant population from men looking for economic opportunity to families uprooted from starvation, according to Duke University and University of Virginia researchers studying migration from Central America.
Researchers reviewing data for about 320,000 Hondurans arrested on the U.S.-Mexico border from 2012 to 2019 found that most of them came from violent agricultural regions, which also had the lowest rainfall in 20 years .
As the drought worsened this year, family fears jumped to the U.S. border from there, even as homicide rates fell in the regions, according to the study released in March.
Climate change is a driving force, but there is little political will to help climate migrants, said David Leblang, professor of politics and politics at the University of Virginia who co-wrote the study.
“As a political scientist, I would say the chances of this happening now are close to zero,” he said.
Some fear political pressure could cause Biden to pull back after the number of people stopped by the Border Patrol reached a 20-year high last month.
He was similarly criticized on Friday for expanding eligibility for refugees but not raising his predecessor’s record low admission limit of 15,000. Hours later, the White House said Biden would raise it by May 15 without saying how much.
Climate migrants should be treated separately from those resettled under the 41-year-old US refugee program, experts say, so as not to take places from traditional refugees.
In New Zealand, in 2017, a new government attempted to offer humanitarian visas to climate-affected Pacific islanders to take in around 100 people a year.
Six months later, the plan was quietly dropped.
New Zealand climate protection minister James Shaw said the government is focusing on reducing emissions so people are not displaced.
“Right now, the Pacific states want us to help secure their futures by focusing on mitigating climate change and helping them adapt,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Associate press writers Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
Julie Watson, The Associated Press