Around the world, people fleeing conflict, racial and gender discrimination, and religious persecution can apply for asylum through the UN refugee convention.
Notably absent from that list? People fleeing climate change.
But now, one country may be the first to change that.
This morning, New Zealand climate change minister James Shaw told Radio New Zealand that the government was “looking at” a new visa category that would allow 100 climate change refugees from neighboring Pacific Island nations to be resettled each year.
This would include refugees from countries including Tuvalu or Kiribati, which, according to the Washington Post, could be mostly underwater within the next half century.
"There might be a new, an experimental humanitarian visa category for people from the Pacific who are displaced by rising seas stemming from climate change, and it is a piece of work that we intend to do in partnership with the Pacific Islands," Shaw said.
Currently, the 1951 UN Convention recognizes a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” but makes no mention of climate change.
The announcement comes in the wake of a newly-formed coalition government, which brings together the Green and Labour parties, according to the Guardian.
In the most recent elections, the Green Party campaigned on a platform of increasing the country’s refugee quota by more than 500%, from 750 to 4,000, over the next six years, and creating a category specific to climate change refugees.
Up until now, refugees seeking asylum for reasons related to climate change have not been granted entry into New Zealand.
Just last week, an immigration and protection tribunal ruled that two families from the island of Tuvalu who filed for asylum under the 1951 UN Convention “did not risk being persecuted,” Radio NZ reported.
The tribunal acknowledged the challenges the families faced from climate change, but ruled that “there is no basis for finding that any harm they do face as a result of the adverse impacts of climate change has any nexus whatsoever to any one of the five Convention grounds.”
In another case from 2014, a man from the island of Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, applied to become the world’s first-ever climate change refugee. He would eventually take his case to the Supreme Court, which decided he “didn’t meet the legal definition of a refugee.”
Some scientists have estimated that as many as 2 billion people could be displaced by rising sea levels by the year 2100. Currently, there are 65.6 million displaced persons around the world, according to the United Nations.
Global Citizen campaigns for refugees around the world, including the right to an education and health care. You can take action here.