WELLINGTON - A Pacific islander is seeking recognition as the world's first climate change refugee in New Zealand as rising seas threaten his low-lying homeland, the man's lawyer said Thursday.
Ioane Teitiota, 37, launched an appeal this week against a decision by New Zealand immigration authorities to refuse him refugee status and deport him to Kiribati in the central Pacific, lawyer Michael Kitt said.
Kitt acknowledged Teitiota's New Zealand visa had expired but said he should not face deportation because of the difficulties he would encounter in Kiribati - which consists of more than 30 coral atolls, most only a few metres (feet) above sea level.
He said rising seas had already swamped parts of Kiribati, destroying crops and contaminating water supplies.
"Fresh water is a basic human right... the Kiribati government is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to guarantee these things because it's completely beyond their control," Kitt told Radio New Zealand.
He said Teitiota's case had the potential to set an international precedent, not only for Kiribati's 100,000 residents but for all populations threatened by man-made climate change.
If his appeal is successful Teitiota would become the world's first climate refugee, Kitt said.
As the environmental problem worsened a new class of refugee was emerging that was not properly covered by existing international protocols, he added.
"It's a fluid situation, eventually the courts and legislatures are going to have to make a decision on how we deal with this."
Kiribati is among a number of island states - including Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Maldives - the UN Human Rights Commission is concerned could become "stateless" due to climate change.