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Changing climate: new refugee visa?

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New Zealand could become the first country to offer visas to families threatened by the effects of climate change. ‘There might be a new, experimental humanitarian visa category for people from the Pacific who are displaced by rising seas stemming from climate change,’ James Shaw, climate change minister and leader of the NZ Green Party, told Radio New Zealand, reported Geographical (UK).

If legislated, the government would offer 100 visas per year under a new climate change humanitarian category. It would be aimed chiefly at populations of neighbouring Pacific islands.

The proposal follows the rejection of two refugee applications made by families from the low-lying island of Tuvalu. Their applications were rejected on the grounds that they did not meet the definition of a ‘refugee’ under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which describes a refugee as someone unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution.

The definition does not account for long-term climate change impacts, such as rising sea levels, nor short-term disasters, such as tropical storms. The aim of the visa would be to address the legal gap.

Atle Solberg, head of the Nansen Initiative Secretariat, which aims to build consensus among states about how to address displacement, says ‘we welcome this proposal by New Zealand and hope that it will encourage other countries to account for similar gaps in their humanitarian visa categories. While it is largely symbolic, it reflects a growing global understanding there need to be better protections not only for victims of climate change, but victims of all kinds of natural disasters.’

To that end, the initiative prefers the term displaced person rather than refugee . ‘Disasters cause displacement,’ says Solberg, ‘and that can happen slowly, quickly, temporarily or permanently and “displaced persons” covers these nuances’.

In 1990, the very first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that the worst effects of climate may be those on human migration. So far, there has been little appetite among states to create legal obligations towards those movements. ‘It is a conversation that is growing louder, but we are starting to see these changes in migration now,’ says Solberg. ‘The clock is ticking.’

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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