The newly formed New Zealand Government of social democrats and greens wants to be a champion for social causes in the Oceanic region, and therefore the cabinet of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now says it is ready to become the first country to welcome and accept visas for climate refugees.
Green party leader Mr James Shaw, who was given the role of Climate Change Minister, explained “It is a piece of work that we intend to do in partnership with the Pacific islands,” and that for this reason “an experimental humanitarian visa category” would be implemented for people from the Pacific islands who are displaced by rising seas resulting from climate change.
The desired change in legislation might be hard to implement, according to international environmental law expert Associate Professor Mr Alberto Costi of Victoria University, as he explained that the current law could not accommodate environmental refugees. “The conditions are pretty strict and really apply to persecution. These people who arrive here hoping to seek asylum on environmental grounds are bound to be sent back to their home countries.”
Just before the election, the Greens, who are the junior partner in the new government together with Labour, had already proposed to increase New Zealand’s overall refugee quota from 750 per year to 4,000.
The announcement of Mr Shaw’s came after the New Zealand immigration and protection tribunal had just rejected two families from Tuvalu island who had applied to become refugees in New Zealand, due to the impact of climate change.
They had argued that rising sea levels meant a lack of access to clean and sanitary drinking water, in combination with Tuvalu’s high unemployment rate.
But because under the 1951 refugee convention of New Zealand they were not considered as being at risk of persecution for race, religion or nationality, the tribunal had rejected their application for asylum.