What Can New Zealand Do To Help Climate Change Asylum Seekers?

Under New Zealand’s treaty obligations, we are legally able to take asylum seekers based on a “well founded fear” of persecution as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although this is a statement that is broad, it currently does not allow refugees who are fleeing their countries due to climate change the ability to seek asylum for that reason. In New Zealand, our immigration policy is committed to helping our “neighbours”; that being Pacific Islander nations. However, if that is true, we should start advocating for change beginning with broadening the definition of refugee to help these countries which will be detrimentally affected by climate change. This has been introduced to Cabinet by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT); however more change is still necessary.

Pacific climate change is becoming more of a substantive issue as climate change worsens worldwide, several of our neighbouring island nations, such as Kiribati are becoming the most in danger to lose their land in only a few years due to rising sea levels. This is an issue that New Zealand should become more involved in, especially if we want to maintain our policy of helping our neighbours. Pacific Island countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, mostly due to the rising sea levels and the fact that the countries are poorly resourced to accomodate for the issue. This means that developed nations such as New Zealand should start implementing change to mitigate these issues as much as possible. 

Picture: The nation of Kiribati, one of the Pacific Islands which is in danger of losing land to rising sea levels and climate change. 

This can begin with governmental initiatives, including what MFAT has introduced as “championing the progressive development of international law to protect Pacific Islands Countries’” (MFAT, 2018). As aforementioned, there is no inclusion of climate change in the international law for asylum seekers or in the definition of “well founded fear”, nor is it covered by any other major international human rights instruments. While some international initiatives briefly consider the impact of climate change on nations, there is nothing substantive that offers people the right to seek asylum due to the effect of climate change on their countries. New Zealand will need to advocate for progressive change to these laws, using their position as a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement and also as a past temporary member of the United Nations Security Change to implement change. 

There are other ways that New Zealand could mitigate these issues, including strengthening international language and frameworks through multilateral action (MFAT, 2018). The current Platform on Disaster Displacement is a platform that is related to asylum seekers fleeing the effects of Climate Change. If New Zealand was to engage with the platform it could generate opportunities for us to access expertise and advocate on behalf of our Pacfic Island neighbours (MFAT, 2018). 

However, a sufficient commitment from New Zealand to take action on climate change and the issue regarding seeking asylum will need long term action by our government. So far, there is nothing that New Zealand has integrated into our foreign policy to help climate change refugees, however several suggestions have been made to our Cabinet by MFAT. It will be interesting to see how New Zealand adopts these supposed changes that have been offered to them, and whether climate change and those seeking asylum from it will be recognised internationally.

Sources: 

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

New Zealand Cabinet Environment Energy and Climate Change Committee.

Walters, Lauren. (April 25, 2019). New Plan Gives Pacific People Chance to Stay Home. Newsroom. Retrieved from https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/04/25/549041/groundbreaking-project-gives-pacific-people-chance-to-stay-in-their-homeland 

ASEP Presents: Gayaal Iddamalgoda

On Thursday the 30th May, all of us here at the Community Justice Project and Asylum Seekers Equality Project had the honour of hosting Gayaal Iddamalgoda to hear his thoughts regarding our current Refugee Policy and the criminalisation of immigration.

Gayaal Iddamalgoda was born in Sri Lanka, in a time where Sinhalese violence and suppression cost hundreds of lives and displaced hundreds of Tamil people. His family migrated firstly to Australia, and then later Dunedin where he grew up. After his graduation he moved to Melbourne and became involved in refugee activism. This was something that shocked Iddamalgoda as he saw “detention centres, surrounded by barbed wire fences and where people were subject to daily physical, emotional and physical abuse just for claiming a basic human right”. It was these circumstances that opened his eyes to the need for refugee policy reform in both Australia and New Zealand.

Iddamalgoda outlined that there is a family-link issue in New Zealand’s refugee policy: African and Middle Eastern refugees are excluded from the quota unless they have an existing family member in New Zealand. While working for First Union New Zealand as an employment lawyer, and the knowledge and experience he acquired in Australia and New Zealand, Iddamalgoda decided to run for Parliament in the Wellington Central seat. In his campaign, he learned that the problem highlights increased disparity but  tends to be ignored and brushed off by politicians. This is evidenced by Iddamalgoda challenging the National candidate running for Rimutaka, who out-rightly denied that the problem existed. Iddamalgoda believes that this is both astonishing, and a clear instance of discrimination, which has been confirmed by the current Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Despite the clear discrimination in our immigration system, Lees-Galloway has not introduced any policy reform regarding this issue. This means that Immigration New Zealand still retains discretion to set a difference of criteria that migrant and asylum seekers have to meet, and the difference in rights for asylum seeker claimants.

This criteria is based on many different factors, as outlined by Gayaal Iddamalgoda. According to him, our current policy is “pegging differential treatment on security concerns”. It is based on assumptions of race, culture and ethnicity, as well as where the asylum seekers come from. This issue is prevalent, especially as it portrays the idea that New Zealand has an aversion to particular people coming to our country, simply because they seek asylum with a visa. The more you are suspected to be an asylum seeker, the more likely your visa will be declined. As stated by Iddamalgoda, this shows the direct “racialisation of New Zealand policy”.

This policy was reviewed and renewed during the height of the Syrian Refugee crisis. This is because the National party argued they wanted New Zealand’s policies to be reflect being “good neighbours”. Yet, there are many instances why this is also not quite true.

The Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme employs workers from the Pacific. This is ostensibly about the “neighbourhood” aspect which New Zealand claims to be basis of our refugee and asylum seeker policy. But under the scheme, the workers’ status is entirely connected to the employer, as they are dependent on them for food and shelter. Workers also cannot reside or leave here without their employer’s permission. Iddamalgoda told us about a case where a worker from Vanuatu was banned from seeing their son by their employer. This demonstrates how New Zealand’s policies can differentiate rights between immigrants and asylum seekers, suggesting that perhaps we are not so focussed on helping our neighbours as we thought.

For more information on groups and services trying to give these people the rights they legally deserve, and also give them a voice in our community, follow our facebook page. We would like to thank Iddamalgoda for his time, perspective and the mahi that he continues to do for the community.