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Jan Lee headshot

New Zealand Creates First Climate Change Refugee Visa Program

By Jan Lee

Size usually speaks volumes when it comes to moxie. The United States, Russia, China and even Canada with its sprawling landscape, are countries we think of as having the ability to change political mindset.

But tiny New Zealand?

Faced with the looming prospect of entire islands disappearing under rising sea levels, New Zealand is designing the world's first climate change refugee visa program. Islands like Kiribati, which has been on the list for funding from the Green Climate Fund for years, is slowly being swallowed up by rising seas. Residents of Kirbati and Tuvalu, another Pacific Island, had applied to New Zealand for refugee status but were turned down since the state did not have a political mechanism by which to accept environmental refugees.

That is now changing. The new Labor-Green Party coalition sees the South Pacific's environmental problems as a platform issue, as recently elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed in a discussion with former Vice President Al Gore.

"We are anchored in the Pacific," Ardern said simply. " I see it as a personal and national responsibility to do our part."

"The whole world is pulling for you," Gore responded.

Of course, resettling refugees won't be simple in a country that is half the size of California and is considered 77th on the list of biggest nations. The Kiribati and Tuvalu islands have more than 100,000 residents. Fiji has already set up the framework for a relocation process, but many of the 11 principal islands in the area will be struggling in future years to adjust to climate change. Coastal degradation is only one part of the impact: drinking water access, excessive heat and storm surge are major threats for coastal communities, particularly on the area's smallest islands.

And it's getting some input from other parts of the world, where experts have been studying refugee migration and how countries respond to the need. One expert at John Hopkins University pointed out that it may not be enough to offer individual visas for refugees: larger, more comprehensive strategies may be necessary for entire populations.

Others have drawn attention to the humanitarian and cultural impacts of climate change and the eventual resettlement.

"The foundations of our unique heritage were taken," explained a Vanuatu Island refugee who was forced to relocate several times.

New Zealand, which faces its own climate impacts in the coming years and will inevitably shrink in size, is being applauded for its initiative. The question now, is, will individual countries, moved by moral compass, really be able to meet the needs of climate change refugees?

Flickr image: Simon Clancy

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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