The World’s First Climate Refugees (Sort Of)

A family from Tuvalu, a tiny island that could be flooded in just a few decades, has been granted residency in New Zealand.

The World’s First Climate Refugees (Sort Of)
[Photos: Flickr user Tomoaki INABA]

Halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the tiny island country of Tuvalu is only an average of 6.6 feet above sea level–low enough that it will likely be one of the first countries to be flooding by rising oceans, maybe as soon as 30 years from now. Already, rising saltwater is starting to poison local drinking water supplies and kill gardens. Now, a family from the island has been granted residency in New Zealand, in part because of climate change.


The family moved to New Zealand in 2007, and after several unsuccessful attempts for work visas, made claims as refugees and protected persons in 2012. That failed, because climate change on its own isn’t yet seen as a reason that someone can qualify as a refugee.

“Because of the slow onset nature of climate change, it was very hard to prove that the treatment they were receive on returning to Tuvalu would be cruel, inhuman, or degrading,” says Trevor Zohs, part of the legal team that represented the family. “It’s a cumulative type of situation. It’s not like what the Yazadis are going through in Iraq at the moment, which is sudden and dramatic and quite clear.”

Though the effects of climate change are slow, they’re already becoming apparent, and the family was able to successfully appeal the decision under a different “humanitarian” claim allowed under New Zealand law. Along with a combination of several other factors–including the fact that the family had children born in New Zealand, and had already been good citizens for several years–the tribunal granted residency.

As sea levels continue to rise and land starts to disappear, it may be easier for others to make a case under current refugee laws. “There are land ownership issues on these islands,” says Zohs. “Once land becomes reduced–because Tuvalu’s one of the most heavily populated places on the planet, in terms of numbers of people per square meter–once the threats become more palpable and the effects immediate, maybe they’ll engage the Refugee Convention.”

It’s also possible that the laws might change. The international Refugee Convention, which was established after World War II, keeps changing over time.

“It’s a living document,” Zohs says. “Gender and sexual orientation have been introduced as time goes on. And very recently disability has become a ground. We’re hoping to get climate refugees in there. We’re working hard to try and persuade our decision makers that they are worthy of protection.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.