In May, Ioane Teitiota, from the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, had his bid to become the world’s first climate change refugee rejected. But later this summer, New Zealand granted a Tuvalu family residency on humanitarian grounds that referred to climate change. Keen to avoid opening ‘floodgates’ (their term) to similar claims, the tribunal stressed this family’s connections to New Zealand. It appears headlines like ‘the era of climate refugees has begun’ are misleading, but it is a case to watch.
There’s a small thread of anti-immigration green politics, and environmental rhetoric gets used by anti-immigration groups (even climate sceptic ones) but the problem is usually larger than that. More broadly, the issue of immigration is a good example of how climate change can intersect with other political controversies. Climate change aggravates already heated immigration rhetoric; likewise, immigration can disrupt climate discussion.
For example, last March’s publication of the IPCC report on impact, adaption and vulnerability led to headlines prophesying doom, with tales of climate change to displace millions. In fact, the report argued migration could provide a way for some to deal with climate change, reducing vulnerability for many populations. It also included much more, but the immigration issue could be folded into other news controversies. Similarly, those seeking to migrate because of climate change find themselves working within harsh and rigid legal and cultural systems which are the product of other political and economic problems and fights.
If you want to read more: the BBC looked in detail at claims about the quantity of climate migrants. Whatever the numbers, people do move in the context of environmental change, and the Climate Outreach and Information Network have produced an engrossing report based on the testimonies of migrants themselves.