Human Face

Is world ready for climate change refugees?


Last week Agence France Presse reported on the case of a Pacific islander who had sought refugee status in New Zealand by arguing that his homeland, the island-nation Kiribati, is known to be sinking. His case received media attention. But the judge dismissed his case as “unconvincing” and “novel.”

Ioane Teitiota, 37, whose visa had expired, pleaded through his lawyers that he should not be deported because climate change is gradually destroying his place of residence in Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas).

In his ruling, High Court Judge John Priestly said Teitiota did not qualify as a refugee under international law. The judge acknowledged that Kiribati is suffering from environmental woes such as storm surges, flooding and water contamination that could be attributed to climate change, but stressed that so are millions of other people in low-lying countries.

Priestly cited the United Nations Refugee Convention stating that refugees must fear persecution if they returned home, and said Teitiota did not meet this requirement.

Petition denied. The Inquirer gave the story the margin-to-margin title “Islander fails in bid to become first climate change refugee.”

This story is relevant in view of the unprecedented magnitude, even by world standards, of the destruction wrought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (“Haiyan”) in parts of central Philippines, the awesome rehabilitation and reconstruction work ahead, and the human toll (more than 5,600 dead at this writing) that Yolanda left behind. Many survivors have been leaving the devastated landscape in droves to seek refuge, even if temporarily, in safer havens. Others may not want to go home again.

Which got me thinking: What do we have here, internal refugees? Not evacuees, whose flight and change of residence are more temporary in nature.

The term “internal refugees” was coined by human rights groups during the Marcos dictatorship. The military would drive out residents of entire villages in order to flush out suspected rebels. Many left their homes never to return again. I know some from the provinces who feared for their lives and resettled in Metro Manila. Some even sought political asylum abroad.

The world has seen different kinds of refugees in the last century. Refugees from political persecution, war, famine. Now, as in the first test case involving a Kiribati national, we have a climate change refugee. Is the world ready? This will be a new kind of refugee—from climate change, which is not entirely Mother Nature’s whim, but her wrathful reaction to humankind’s abuses against the planet. (Some extreme schools of thought may attribute the calamities to inexorable planetary or cosmic changes not of humankind’s making.)

According to Nature World News (NWN), Kiribati faces problems of rising sea levels and its increasing population. NWN reported that about half of the total head count, some 50,000 people, are already packed onto a small sand strip that measures six square miles. Countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu have been sinking over the past many years, but NWN cited a Reuters report that global warming might not be the sole cause of Kiribati’s woes. Local traditions favoring large families and Church restrictions on family planning have led to population increase, overcrowding, disease, and infant mortality. Two friends of mine, both health education experts, worked in Kiribati many years ago. They didn’t tell me about Kiribati’s sinking then.

Agence France Presse reported that the UN Human Rights Commission is concerned that Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Maldives could become “stateless” because of climate change. NWN said Kiribati President Anote Tong has predicted that his country will be uninhabitable in the next 30 to 60 years because of sea level rise and contamination of freshwater. Among the options are moving the entire population to manmade islands and buying land in Fiji.

The Pacific region has some of the smallest nations on Earth which are most vulnerable to climate change. An Asian Development Bank report stressed the impact of climate change on the region’s agriculture, fisheries, tourism, coral reefs and human health. Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands are taking a bad hit.

Last September, the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum signed the Majuro Declaration (named after the capital of Marshall Islands) which seeks pledges on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy.

Back to the local front.  An Inquirer report (by correspondent Robert Gonzaga) said that Bataan, the site of the camp for refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (called “boat people” then) who fled communist rule two to three decades ago, could be a major relocation area for Yolanda survivors in search of new homes.

Some Bataan residents are open to the idea of Yolanda survivors either as temporary refugees or starting a new life in the province.  They had welcomed Indochinese refugees in the past, they said, why not fellow Filipinos this time? The former camp in Morong, Bataan, is now the site of the Bataan Technology Park (area: approximately 360 hectares). Bases Conversion and Development Authority president Arnel Casanova said he’s open to the idea.

Of course, there are pros and cons, so hold your horses. The refugee camp under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had UN funding then. Bringing in Yolanda survivors will require logistics of the government kind. Jobs, skills and cultural integration are just a few issues. Will Yolanda survivors—refugees in their own country—even take the offer?

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  • mememine

    Climate blame believers are like Rob Ford; they don’t even know what it is that they are agreeing on.
    Climate Change was 30 years of news editors saying it WILL be a crisis and NEVER reporting that the scientific consensus was NOTHING beyond just; “could be” a crisis and have NEVER said it WILL be “inevitable” or “eventual” or “unavoidable” ……

    You can’t say a crisis is certain until science does.

    *Find us just one single IPCC warning that agrees beyond “could be” and isn’t swimming in a sea of “maybes”.*

    You can choose to believe what you like but you cannot say a crisis will happen, only could.

    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

    • josh_alexei

      But Rob Ford believers or supporters agree that the Big boy does Crack Cocaine, and also smells alcohol just about every waking hour, but fiscal wise, he is a good mayor and he won that office handily and if qualified to run next year could win it again…And it surprises even his non believers.

  • foreignerph

    Most refugees are just eyeing the generous social allowances in developed nations, since they never pick out closer by poor countries like the PH to claim asylum. Why not just do like the Dutch? They started to build dams and dykes centuries ago in as far as most of the country now lies under the average sea level. Help yourself!

  • WalterPaulKomarnicki

    there’s also Maldives, Nauru, parts of Manhattan and Long Island, and just about anywhere where the place is at or below sea level.

  • cogito728sum

    What a fine article but not interesting enough to draw the attention of the ordinary mind judging by the number of reactions from the reader. For those still in denial of the reality of climate change, hereunder are some selected points to ponder, excerpted from a book by Paul Brown, environment correspondent for the Guardian Newspaper for 16 years, titled Global Warning.

    “Climate change is the most important issue of the 21st century. The global economy–and civilization itself–may collapse unless greenhouse gas emissions are controlled. Global warming already touches every part of the planet, and people everywhere are affected in their daily lives.”

    “After the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina…we have entered a period of consequences….The climate crisis may at times appear to be happening slowly, but in fact it is a true planetary emergency.” Quoting Al Gore in “The Moment of Truth.”

    “We are upsetting the atmosphere upon which all life depends. In the late 80’s …we referred to global warming as a ‘slow motion catastrophe,’ one we expected to kick in perhaps generations later. Instead, the signs of change have accelerated alarmingly.” Quoting Dr. David Suzuki, founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, Oct. 2005.

    “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Quoting Mahatma Gandhi.

    “As for my country, the Maldives, a mean sea-level rise of 2 meters would suffice to virtually submerge a country of 1,190 small islands, most of which barely rise over 2 meters above mean sea level. That would be the death of a nation.” Quoting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president of the Republic of Maldives, addressing the UN General Assembly in October, 1987.

    Thanks to Miss Ceres P. Doyo for this most elucidating article about the future of humanity. The ultimate questions should be, who would save man from his own folly, where would he go after totally destroying the habitability of his own planet, does he now possess the wherewithal to go wherever he can perpetuate his stupidity? Ah, indeed, the proper study of mankind is still man himself. Merci beaucoup Pope!

    • WeAry_Bat

      I guess maybe city-bred people are mostly the ones who do not believe in
      climate change. There is no motivation to go out every weekends outside the metropolis to a farm and beach. Many people do not have a farm and beach so it costs money and gas.

      The sense with nature does not evolve, there is no reference for the changes in weather from childhood to adult. I remember the rains in our part of Mindanao was like an angry man determined to rain with some lightning and thunder. Nowadays, the rain there is like a woman, effeminate or gay. It can’t decide to rain and dallies this way or that with a semblance of some drops but not all. And when it does rain, it does not know when to stop, so it floods.

      • cogito728sum

        A very wholesome reply. What we should find interestingly educational is according to that book from where the above excerpts where taken, it is over the tiny island of Kiribati where the weather pattern for any given 24 hr. period is formed. What brings loneliness is that these beautiful tropical isles would disappear and only in history books where my grandchildren will come to know that they existed at all, if man does not change his patter of economic behavior now. Merci!

      • WeAry_Bat

        I will have to remember to tell baby girl about the island countries which disappeared before she grew up. And how the Philippines used to be 7,100 islands.

    • kapitanvic1

      Isn’t it ironic that the last UN conference/junket on climate change in Warsaw, Poland was derailed by the three Top Polluters in the world : China, India, Brazil. Their reason for not reducing their carbon footprint – their country is still underdeveloped.

      • cogito728sum

        Maybe they are, in understanding the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. Merci kapitan!

  • PhoenixPoliticalParty

    That the NZ judge ruling called it “novel” might apply to the human race as a whole. Here we are, at the top of the ladder among the species on earth, and yet we rely on petty legalese to turn our backs on our own kind.

    Survival of the human race might seem like a comedy, to those other stellar life forms, if they do exist and are simply observing us from their lofty regions.

    Here is something for that judge, iniliwat ko na sa sariling wika:

    Walang taong tulad ay ng isang pulo
    Ganap at sapat na sa kanyang sarili.
    Tayo’y butil nitong lawak na kay layo,
    Bahagi lamang ng higit na malaki.
    Kapag ang isa mang tipak nitong lupa
    Matangay ng laot, lupain bumaba,
    O maging talampas sa gilid ng dagat,
    O ang kapit-bahay diyan lamang sa tapat,
    Lalo na marahil kung sariling bubong.
    Sinumang mamatay aking kabawasan
    Dahil sangkot ako sa sangkatauhan.
    Samakatuwid baga huwag ipagtanong
    Tunog ng batingaw ay ukol kanino
    Pagkat alingawngaw ay ukol sa iyo.

  • Fulpol

    Leyte and Samar are not sinking.. why refugees?? if you transfer them, you still need to feed them, shelter them..

    the best thing is to do the rehabilitation, quickly… and do adoptive measures in all levels of rehabilitation against strong typhoons..

  • josh_alexei

    He should instead just stayed as “undocumented” alien like the thousands of them in the US and or many of the smarties who destroyed their documents and applied for Refugee and or Asylum in Canada and being housed at the Holiday inn until their cases are resolved. but without the documents, where do you deport them to?

  • Ommm

    One has to realize the oceans were 300 meters higher than today 10 million years ago. Yes a long time ago but only a fraction of our existence….

    Perhaps we should not be so narrow minded to expect a constant on this planet….

  • kapitanvic1

    Will Scots and Brits be next to apply for refugee status? Their country is experiencing right now winds of up to 142 miles per hour (228 kilometers per hour) were recorded in Scotland and Britain’s environment agency said the “surge along the east coast of England is expected to be the worst for more than 60 years.”

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