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Last plea for ‘climate change refugee’

Tuesday 22 September 2015 | Published in Regional


Kiribati man and his family will be deported today unless intervention comes from government.

AUCKLAND – A Kiribati community leader in Auckland was heading to parliament in Wellington yesterday to plead with the government not to deport a man whose advocates say is a climate change refugee.

Ioane Teitiota is set to be deported from Auckland today after a court rejected a last-minute bid to be released from jail.

Immigration NZ lawyer Terri Thompson said Teitiota was booked on a flight to Kiribati leaving Auckland at 1pm today.

She said seats had also been booked on the same flight for his wife and for their three children who were all born in New Zealand since the couple arrived on short-term work visas in 2007.

Reverend Iosefa Suamalie said he is going to Wellington personally to plead to keep the family in New Zealand.

On Friday, Teitiota’s lawyer Dr Michael Kidd asked for Teitiota to be released from jail so that he could wait for an appeal on humanitarian grounds to Associate Immigration Minister Craig Foss and prepare documents for a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

“This Government is allowing in 850 Syrian refugees and it is not concerned with the conditions of our own Pacific people,” he said.

He gave the judge a petition signed by 48 members of the local Kiribati community asking Prime Minister John Key and other ministers to let the Teitiota family stay.

Waitakere District Court Judge Stan Thorburn said he did not have any power to stop the deportation.

“It seems to me that the only remedy possible at present to stop the process resulting in his deportation on Wednesday is for ministerial intervention. That of course is something beyond this court’s power and jurisdiction,” he said.

About 70 people attended a public meeting in West Auckland on Monday night in support of Teitiota, his wife Angua Erika and their three children.

Teitiota had been fighting against deportation back to Kiribati since 2011, his lawyers arguing he should have been considered a refugee based on climate change, and rising sea levels.

Despite taking the case through the courts in July the Supreme Court ruled that while the family would face challenges returning to Kiribati, they would not face serious harm.

He has been told he is booked on a flight out of New Zealand tomorrow.

One of the people at the meeting, John Corcoran, had been a key witness in legal proceedings.

Corcoran said the family’s outlook was grim, with many Kiribati families already struggling to survive on the island.

“At the moment there’s not many jobs provided by the government, so when they go back, they will be struggling. Ioane will be struggling, and I am pretty sure it will be hard for him to get a job,” he said.

Immigration New Zealand said last week that Teitiota’s wife and children, who do not have citizenship, had also been served with deportation orders and it would be “engaging with them to facilitate their departure”.

Corcoran said Teitiota’s children would suffer.

“The children will miss the food they’re used to in New Zealand, like fruit – the only food back home is rice, flour, fish, and hardly any fruit,” he said.

He said there was little hope they could grow any crops of their own, and even access to clean water was fading.

“Well, in most places it’s quite hard to grow crops, especially in the coastal areas. And the well water, especially the wells close to the lagoon, during the high tide, the seawater goes inside, and it will taste like sea water,” he said.

Fala Haulangi, who organised the support meeting, said the community was not going to stop fighting.

“The community has the power to take ownership of that and say ‘hey, we’re suffering here, and what are you people doing?’, that’s why the community has started to say ‘the government is too slow, the UN is too slow, so let’s do it’,” she said.

“At the end of the day, these people are very much part of our community, day in and day out, and they’re going to be deported back home back to Kiribati or Tuvalu, when they have not been part of a community.”

Haulangi said Teitiota’s wife, Angua Erika, was worried for her children’s future.

“They are well settled here, they’re not on a benefit or anything, they work hard and they look after their kids – their mother says ‘my priority is a better future for my children, this is their home, they are born in New Zealand, the only home they know is New Zealand, not Kiribati’,” she said.

Labour MP for Kelston, Carmel Sepuloni, said it was not uncommon in her electorate to have generations of overstayers from Kiribati and Tuvalu.

“Three generations of people here unlawfully, living in fear, two of those generations who’ve never known Tuvalu really – so to constantly have that cloud above them, with fear they could one day be found or made to go back is a horrible climate to be living in,” she said.

Sepuloni said the government needed to step up.

“New Zealand and Australia really need to take responsibility for that – these two countries especially are facing climate change issues that are going to mean they will legitimately be the first climate change refugees, and they’re our neighbours,” she said.

Sepuloni said a serious conversation about climate change refugees needed to take place throughout the Pacific.

Teitiota was arrested last week and placed in Mt Eden jail after being served with a deportation order.

Teitiota’s local MP, Labour’s Phil Twyford, has also been attempting to help the family.

He had asked New Zealand’s immigration minister Craig Foss to intervene to stop the deportations on humanitarian grounds and said he expected to hear back the minister within the next 24 hours.

Twyford visited Teitiota in Mt Eden prison last Friday.

Twyford said although the law did not agree climate change was a reason for allowing Teitiota to stay, the minister should consider Kiribati’s deteriorating environment when deciding whether or not to intervene.

He said it was a problem New Zealand would have to deal with by being part of a regional, or even international, solution to Kiribati’s problem.

“I think that long-term resettlement will be part of the mix,” Twyford said.