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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A new life in New Zealand

Excited, sad, worried, concerned, happy, and nervous, the house felt different. Younger members of the family were thrilled. Saddened, elders faced the fact that more family was leaving Kiribati. Google chat sessions connected us with those living in New Zealand. Most nights, it was fun, lively conversation, but some nights were hard as chats opened my eyes to the difficulties they faced.

He (my cousin) has been there for almost one year, and he says he misses his family and wants them there with him. He is lonely and not happy being there by himself. He is living with other I-Kiribati, but I’m sure it’s not the same if you have your family and your house; he has neither (KInterview 8. 8., 2008).

Contemporary I-Kiribati migration patterns place individuals in low or unskilled positions earning lower wages in more impoverished working conditions. Through the PAC, New Zealand employers indirectly encourage the development of a marginalized class through employment-based migration. Chosen, individuals must obtain an offer of employment — currently employed I-Kiribati act as brokers, pairing companies seeking workers with PAC winners. Informal networking ensures residential concentrations of migrant workers and creates a semi-permanent and visible diaspora community.

Migration emerging out of inequality reinforces inequality on a larger scale, widening social disparities for migrants in their new countries (Connell, 1987). Though the economy has historically been a major pull factor in migration, deteriorating environmental conditions at home have introduced new push factors.

Then, the government hoped to push for migration with dignity as migrants contributed socially and economically to their new country abroad.

They will go with dignity, rather than climate change refugees. I believe ‘refugee’ has a negative tone, one of helplessness and despair, I do not want my people to be labeled like that, we are a proud people and [we] will remain proud [wherever we go ] (KInterview 8. 3., 2008).

As of 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to recognize a category for climate change refugees. Though categorically undefined, environmental asylum seekers from several countries have moved forward with claims. In 2010, Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati man, sought refuge in New Zealand after his visa expired by claiming fear of persecution from climate change. Fearing for his New Zealand born children’s future, his case moved forward. In 2014, a New Zealand High Court judge denied the application, citing that the UNHRC Refugee Convention did not recognize persecution fears based on environmental factors (Meakins, 2012). Deported and returned to Kiribati in 2015, his case remains highly visible in global human rights spheres.

Climatically induced transnational migration is and has been for decades, a theoretical concept. Ioane’s case could become a watershed event for thousands of other cases in limbo. Could the definition of a refugee expand to include climate? Under what degree of hardship would individuals qualify? Who would be accountable for vanishing lands, and how would impacted populations be compensated? Would a climate refugee eventually become defined?

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