Kiribati: Where to go from Here?

As the issue of climate change continues to grow each year, with carbon dioxide levels on a steady rise since the 1950s[1], its impact on the world has become unequivocal. NASA’s climate change statistics has noted 2016 as the warmest year ever recorded [1], which only leads to further rises in sea levels, an effect that some regions will feel more strongly than others.

Coastal countries like such as the pacific nation of Kiribati not only suffer from extreme weather such as cyclones, but its low-lying nature means that much of the land is less than two meters (approx. six feet) above sea level [2]. As a result, any increase in sea levels will heavily impact the residents as their homes become flooded and uninhabitable. Climate change statistics are show that sea levels are also rising 50 percent faster than they were 20 years ago, indicating the possibility of the island becoming completely uninhabitable within decades. But then, where do the people go?

For the residents of Kiribati, it becomes increasingly clear that the only option is to migrate to other countries that are less affected by climate change. Currently, this can only be done by applying for specific visas such as the Pacific Access Category Resident Visa, since the 1951 UN Refugee Convention does not see climate change as a legitimate reason to attain refugee status. While the Convention provides an easy way to achieve residency in New Zealand, the downside is that it pits Kiribati residents against all the other applicants.

Recognizing this issue, James Shaw, New Zealand’s Minister for Climate Change and leader of the Green Party, announced last month to establish a new humanitarian visa targeted specifically at Pacific Islanders that are in danger of having to flee their homes as a result of coastal erosion. [3]

Shaw hopes that doing so could provide a temporary solution until carbon emission levels can be better controlled. While the main priority is to allow Pacific communities to adapt independently and relocate within their communities, this may be difficult if sea levels continue to rise. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, also aims to greatly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2050.

This new humanitarian visa may serve as another important bridge between New Zealand and other Pacific Islands. While other countries may also be planning on providing aid, such as Australia which is planning on spending at least $300 million Australian Dollars, New Zealand remains the sole country that has planned to establish a direct solution to Kiribati’s climate issue. On the other hand, Shaw and Ardern also may need to consider the possibility that inhabitants of Kiribati may prefer aid for their homeland as opposed to having to leave their homes as the sole solution.

Not only does the new visa program strengthen New Zealand’s relations with Kiribati and other Pacific nations,  but it also strengthens the government’s own position as they continue to gain support from the country’s own Pacific Island population. Pacific Islanders (including Maori) comprise of more than 20 percent of the country’s population [4], and the introduction of such a visa is likely to directly affect much of the local population who may have relatives in the regions suffering most from rising sea levels, Kiribati being just one such example.

At the same time, implementing such a visa program may prove to be difficult for a number of reasons. For example, it is difficult to prove that climate change is the reason for the migration, and may lead to abuse and political tension. Additionally,  it may be difficult for individual countries such as New Zealand to solve the problem alone. If climate change continues to worsen, the exodus of climate refugees from low-lying island states such as Kiribati will become a growing concern for the international community. While countries such as New Zealand are setting an example for the rest of the world by taking concrete actions in addressing the issue of climate refugees, the solution of humanitarian visas may need to be approached from a different perspective in order to ensure that it provides the proper aid it promises. 

Gillian Xie is a freshman studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. She is the Blogger for Defense Affairs in East Asia.


[1] NASA, 2017. NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally, New York: NASA.

[2] Gray, David. “Tide of humanity, as well as rising seas, lap at Kiribati's future.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 13 Jun. 2013

[3] Taylor, Lin. “New Zealand Considers Visa for Climate 'Refugees' from Pacific Islands.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 Nov. 2017,

[4] Stats NZ, 2013. 2013 Census – Major ethnic groups in New Zealand, Wellington: Statistics New Zealand.

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