“This notion of humanitarian visas, legal pathways, and temporary protection are policy options that we are encouraging states to use.” [Photo: andrej67/iStock]
New Zealand is considering creating a new visa for people fleeing environmental disasters brought on by climate change...
In 2012, a migrant worker from the tiny, low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati tried to become a refugee in New Zealand, arguing that he and his family were afraid to go home because of the impacts of rising sea levels. The courts didn’t accept that the dangers were imminent–or that they were due to reasons of persecution that are outlined in the international refugee convention–and rejected his claim. But people fleeing the effects of climate change on Pacific islands may soon have a new option: New Zealand’s new climate change minister hopes to create an experimental humanitarian visa for “climate refugees.”
“There’s a conversation just beginning in New Zealand, with the change of government, that makes lots of things that didn’t feel possible before now at least open for discussion,” says Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of UNICEF New Zealand, who has advocated for support for people in neighboring countries who may soon be forced to move.
By 2050 hundreds of millions of people around the world–or, by some estimates, as many as 1 billion–could be displaced because of environmental problems, such as drought and flooding, that are made worse by climate change. Some people will move within countries. In the U.S., for example, an entire community living on an island in Southern Louisiana is being relocated to higher ground within the state. But many will be forced to cross borders.
It may be unlikely that people forced to move because of climate change will ever be recognized as refugees under international law, which requires someone to prove persecution based on politics, religion, or other aspects of identity (though people who are official refugees aren’t afforded particularly good treatment, either). Climate change is indiscriminate. But a growing number of countries may do something similar to New Zealand.
“This notion of humanitarian visas, legal pathways, and temporary protection are policy options that we are encouraging states to use,” says Atle Solberg, head of the coordination unit of the United Nations’ Platform on Disaster Displacement.
There are challenges, at least with the policies that have existed to date in places like Brazil. “These categories are not really designed for the long haul, and for durable, lasting solutions,” he says. “That is particularly relevant if you think of some of the more negative effects in developing states. Let’s say it won’t be possible to return, and people will need to permanently leave some of these areas–then these tools may come up short in terms of the need for permanent solutions.” But if multiple countries create new pathways for migration, and begin to coordinate regionally, Solberg says that he thinks “it would go a long way” to help both in short-term crises and in the longer term.
She believes that more countries will follow New Zealand’s example. “I think as a world, we’re going to see in much more material terms that our earth is a closed system . . . We sort of pretended that they’re all separate systems, and we’re coming very much face-to-face with the idea that it’s all connected. The solution will resolve us to act in an interconnected way.”
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