The Making of a Climate Refugee
How an unsuspecting farmworker from Kiribati became the brand ambassador of climate change—despite barely knowing what it was.
A cold New Zealand rain pelted the broad, weathered face of the man from the tropical Pacific. He squinted up at the gathering storm before refocusing his attention on crates of freshly picked Chinese cabbages, carefully adjusting and wrapping them to make sure they would arrive at market in perfect condition. Over the years, such attention to detail and dependability have elevated him from field hand to foreman of a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Auckland. Typically, Ioane Teitiota (pronounced Tess-ee-yo-tah) reports to work every day, for eight-hour shifts or longer, though he takes an occasional Sunday off. “Some people say it’s hard work,” he said. “I say it’s good for me and my family.”
Teitiota was born on Tabiteuea atoll, one of the 33 tiny islands scattered across a vast expanse of the central Pacific that belong to the Republic of Kiribati (Keer-ree-bahss). The country reaches across 1.35 million square miles of ocean, but all its islands combined add up to just 313 square miles, a landmass the size of Kansas City, Missouri. The nation’s atolls formed millions of years ago around what were once the rims of sunken undersea volcanoes. As the seas rose and dormant volcanoes sank under their own weight, reefs of living coral grew toward the light and produced enough rubble and sand to form land. The lone exception is the raised-coral island of Banaba, which peaks at 266 feet, the nation’s highest point. (Banaba was left defaced by the British, who strip-mined its rock phosphate for nearly eight decades before they finally abandoned it and the other islands when granting Kiribati its independence in 1979.)
To think of these islands as emerging from the sea with lush green hills like Jamaica or Tahiti gives the wrong mental picture. Kiribati’s atolls, including Tabiteuea, are stitched together by squat, narrow strands of sand severed by intertidal channels that connect the surrounding deep blue ocean to a shallow aquamarine lagoon in the middle. It’s hard to find a place more than a few minutes’ walk to the water’s edge, in any direction.
Straddling the equator about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Kiribati has seen fresh groundwater grow scarce and fish catches decline under the demand of a booming population expected to double before midcentury. Without replenishing rains, the thin lens of depleted groundwater turns brackish. More than half of Kiribati’s 110,000 people now live on the capital island of Tarawa, a proportion steadily increasing with more arrivals from outer islands seeking cash, jobs, and better schools for their kids. (It’s culturally taboo to refuse the request of a relative, so households pack dozens of extended family members under one roof and bed down on woven floor mats.) The capital’s shantytowns are bulging and sprawling onto reclaimed or low-lying land vulnerable to inundation whenever wind-driven waves arrive with the highest tides.
But the worst has yet to come for this desperately poor and isolated country. Kiribati, whose land averages little more than 6 feet above sea level, is on the list of places in the world most vulnerable to rising oceans. Water expands as it warms, and the world’s swelling seas are being deluged with glacial melt; once they rise 3 feet or possibly more this century, as most climate scientists predict they will, Kiribati will suffer even greater erosion and flooding than it does already. As this happens, it will likely become one of the first countries to face an exodus of people due to climate change.
Before moving to New Zealand in 2007, Teitiota spent four frustrating, jobless years living in Tarawa with his wife’s extended family on reclaimed land—sand and rubble piled up behind a shoulder-high sea wall of coral chunks and cement. Ocean waves riding the backs of high tides knocked out part of the sea wall and flooded the family compound not once, but twice—and both times Teitiota helped rebuild it. Like most I-Kiribati, as the people of the country are called, he saw this as the normal way of life for people in intimate proximity to the sea. He certainly didn’t think much about the distant notion that rising seas would bring such trouble more often. The idea of climate change barely registered in the back of his mind.
In 2007, when New Zealand granted work visas to Teitiota and his wife, they left within a month, cashing in her mandatory retirement savings to buy airline tickets. Two flights and 2,600 miles away, she became a caregiver in an Auckland nursing home; he found ample work in nearby greenhouses and farm fields. In quick succession, they had three children. The past eight years, Teitiota said, raced by in a blur. He was making a go of it in a new country; his life was going very well.
Although his story might seem like a familiar one—a laborer from an impoverished country takes a lowly job and his perseverance pays off, giving his family a foothold in a foreign land—it is anything but. In the case of Teitiota, his story goes something like this: In 2011, he had inadvertently overstayed his visa, so he filed a series of court appeals in a bid to stay in New Zealand. What he wanted was something straightforward: a visa extension. What he got, however, was an attorney who decided to present Teitiota as a casualty of climate change—and to set out to change international law. The argument goes that Teitiota can’t return home because the coming deluge not only threatens Kiribati, but the health and safety of him, his wife, and their three young children.
Consequently, over the past year, this 38-year-old migrant farmworker has become an unlikely international celebrity, a stand-in for the thousands of people in Kiribati—as well as millions more worldwide—expected to be forced from their homes due to rising seas and other disruptions on a warming planet. Teitiota is a contender to become the world’s first climate refugee, albeit an accidental one.
Around the world, governments, policymakers, activists, and academics are wrestling with what to do about the coming wave of climate migrants—a category of displaced people that now falls into what the United Nations’ refugee chief calls a “legal void.” In fact, the issues raised in Teitiota’s case have become part of the debate in legal journals and international meetings.
Now, Teitiota, who barely speaks enough English to communicate effectively with his attorney, much less understands the legal language of New Zealand’s immigration rules, is both pained and perplexed as to how and why he has fallen on the wrong side of the law. And while many in the international community are holding him up as a symbol, this very attention has only vilified him in his homeland.
After three dismissed court cases, Teitiota lives with the threat of deportation, dreading that he will fall back into the ranks of the unemployed and fearing for the well-being of his children, ages 2, 4, and 6, should the family be sent back to a country that struggles with high child mortality, a startling lack of toilets, and contaminated water supplies.
“Our future is so unsettled,” he said through an interpreter. “Our lawyer is working on it, but we don’t know.… I’m worried about the knock on the door and people telling us to leave.”
The trouble began in 2010, when Teitiota found a lawyer in New Zealand to renew visas for him and his wife. Teitiota understood that the lawyer would take care of it all, so “I left everything to him,” he said. But it wasn’t so simple. The lawyer had follow-up questions on how to proceed, not to mention concerns about payment; however, Teitiota—who was working long hours in the fields—was difficult to reach. Without the cash to cover legal fees, the lawyer stopped working on the Teitiotas’ case and held onto their passports, visas, and other documents. More significantly, the lawyer didn’t tell Teitiota that important deadlines had passed—a reality that came crashing down on Teitiota when he was stopped by a patrol officer for a burned-out tail light in December 2011. Because he had overstayed his visa, a warrant had been issued for his arrest. “He was locked up for a couple of days until they realized he wasn’t going to run away,” said Michael Kidd, his current lawyer.
By the time Teitiota asked Kidd to take his case in early 2012, the deadline for requesting a visa extension was long gone. So was the 42-day grace period to appeal to immigration authorities on humanitarian grounds, which would have allowed Teitiota a chance to argue, in the words of the country’s immigration law, that “exceptional circumstances,” such as high child-mortality rates, would make it “unjust or unduly harsh” should he and his family be forced to return home. (In 2013, Kiribati’s child-mortality rate was 58 deaths per 1,000, nearly 10 times higher than in New Zealand, according to the U.N. Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation.) Immigration experts said that Teitiota would have had a strong case, given the fact that his children were young, vulnerable, and born in New Zealand—though none were granted citizenship at birth due to a change in the law that took effect in 2006. Yet after the grace period, there was no legal room for a humanitarian appeal.
Climate change doesn’t just forebode an ecological crisis, but a humanitarian one as well.
So Kidd began to pray about the case—his way of brainstorming legal possibilities. (On his website, he promotes his legal practice as combining “the law of mankind and the law of God,” which can “achieve, sometimes, miraculous results.”) Kidd, a large, unkempt man in his early 60s, with a shirttail hanging out, is a seeker of “spiritual fitness,” a Pentecostal pastor who visits prisons, volunteers with the Salvation Army Faith Factory, and goes on church missions to Pacific islands like Vanuatu. He has an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in law, aboriginal spirituality, and anthropology and has been a champion of marginalized communities since he worked for various Australian aboriginal legal service offices in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, he generally handles low-profile criminal cases out of his storefront office in suburban Auckland, mostly for clients of Maori descent or for other Pacific Islanders.
As he prayed, Kidd said, he saw Teitiota as a victim of a growing global inequity, a larger humanitarian issue that needed to be addressed. “We weren’t a bunch of greenies, saying, ‘Let’s do a global warming case.’” But when he met with I-Kiribati expatriates and saw pictures of flooded villages, the answer to his prayers slowly dawned on him. “I thought maybe this would be a good test case,” he said. Although perhaps new to Kidd, this wasn’t an absolutely novel idea in New Zealand: In recent years, other Pacific Islanders have raised similar court challenges, but without success. “It’s not just people fearing being drowned,” Kidd said. “There’s all of the environmental degradation due to rising sea levels.”
Like many I-Kiribati, Teitiota had seen the damage from erosion and flooding that comes when bad weather hits the islands at high tide. He said he had “heard stories” about the threat of climate change, but didn’t really understand “the fuller picture about rising sea levels” until he moved to New Zealand and started watching television programs about it. “It discouraged us from going back.”
That sentiment was enough for Kidd. So he appealed to New Zealand authorities to allow Teitiota to stay as a protected refugee under the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Adopted while Europe was in chaos after World War II, the convention was specifically designed to help those with legitimate fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Kidd’s primary argument was that Teitiota faced indirect persecution from human-caused global warming.
“Morally his case is very strong,” Kidd said, who noted that over decades of practicing law, he has seen insurmountable legal hurdles crumble away. “Legally, with the way the law is written.… Well, the point is: The laws need to be changed.”
As soon as the case hit New Zealand’s High Court in October 2013, it drew international media attention, with stories and TV broadcasts beamed around the world. “This surprised me,” wrote Justice John Priestley, who presided over the case. In an email, Priestley, who has since retired, wrote that he was astonished that the Wall Street Journal covered the case, as did Australian TV and many others. “A week after the hearing I received an email from an old high school friend who has lived in Paris for 40 years [and] who saw a shot of me in Court on French TV,” he wrote. “There had been no prior publicity about the Tribunal decision or about the appeal as far as I knew. So exactly how the media interest was created remains a mystery to me.”
The allure, of course, was how the case touched on broader political questions. Should international law protect those forced to leave their countries due to climate- related disasters? Do wealthy, high carbon dioxide-polluting countries have a responsibility to help the poor countries least capable of weathering a changing climate?
It didn’t take long for Teitiota to gain the first insights into those questions. Before he knew it, the farmworker was celebrated for seeking to become the world’s first climate refugee. Painfully shy, he was featured in an Oxfam New Zealand video titled “The Biggest Challenge of Our Time.” Last June, New Zealand political activists organized a campaign event to raise climate change awareness among voters; they acknowledged Teitiota as a Pacific Islander standing up for his rights. His lawyer still regularly fields calls from journalists inquiring about the case from France, Germany, and Switzerland, among other nations. Television crews from Australia and South Korea have flown in to interview Teitiota.
The international media glommed on to Teitiota’s court appeals. His first began behind closed doors at New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, whose proceedings are held in secret to protect the identities of people seeking asylum. Bruce Burson, a tribunal member and migration law expert, listened to Teitiota’s and his wife’s testimonies. He saw pictures of ocean floodwaters poisoning coconut trees and swamping houses, images brought by expert witness John Corcoran, a native of Kiribati completing a Ph.D. in New Zealand on the compounding pressures of climate change, urbanization, and population growth. After three months of deliberation, Burson issued a lengthy ruling in 2013 that found Teitiota credible, along with his story that he and his wife did “not wish to return to Kiribati because of the difficulties they faced due to the combined pressures of over-population and sea-level-rise.” But Burson rejected his appeal, as a matter of law.
So did the High Court later that year, after the well-publicized open hearing that first allowed Teitiota’s name to go public. In May 2014, the Court of Appeal also dismissed the case. All three bodies issued similar decisions, ruling it wasn’t their place to expand the scope of the international refugee convention to cover those displaced by climate change. Despite their sympathy for the people of Kiribati, the legal authorities said Teitiota’s argument failed to meet the narrow criteria spelled out in the convention.
In their various opinions, New Zealand authorities wrote that the impacts of climate change are largely indiscriminate, rather than targeting any individual for any particular reason. Furthermore, the appellate justices agreed with Justice Priestley, writing that the arguments in the case attempted to “stand the [refugee] convention on its head.” Refugees typically flee from governments that have failed to protect them from persecution or that have persecuted them directly. In this case, Teitiota “is seeking refuge within the very countries that are allegedly ‘persecuting’ him,” Priestley wrote, referring to industrialized nations filling the skies with greenhouse gases. Priestley noted that if he granted asylum to Teitiota and if the legal precedent spread around the world, it would open the doors to “millions of people” facing economic deprivation, consequences of natural disasters, or other “hardships caused by climate change.”
Although disappointed by the rulings, Kidd said he thought Priestley’s words were “refreshingly honest” about an issue that the New Zealand government and others could simply ignore. It has made him want to carry on with the case. So in December 2014, Kidd was again finalizing legal papers to seek climate refugee status for Teitiota’s wife and three children. This time, his plan is to package the whole family in one unified appeal to the Supreme Court of New Zealand, partly to work around some of the lower courts’ rulings that did not consider potential harm to Teitiota’s children.
Odd as it might seem, Teitiota and his lawyer have never had any in-depth discussions about the legal strategy for the case or its chance of success. Angua Erika, often serves as an interpreter, though her English is limited. Money to hire an interpreter isn’t in the picture. In fact, Teitiota has so few funds that Kidd said he has donated most of his time to a case he finds enthralling compared with his usual load. “If it wasn’t for my [paying] criminal clients, I wouldn’t be able to represent Mr. Teitiota.”
Teitiota would just as soon leave the legal strategy to his defender. “I trust what my lawyer is doing,” he said. Although he has become something of an international celebrity, he cares little about this, he added—so long as he gets to stay in New Zealand.
Teitiota’s case won’t be the last one filed on behalf of those who must relocate due to a hotter, more crowded planet. Nearly 22 million people were displaced in 119 countries by floods, storms, and other disasters in 2013—roughly three times as many as those displaced by conflict or violence, according to a report authored by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center and the Norwegian Refugee Council. And scientists know that a warmer atmosphere loads the dice for more frequent and more extreme weather events. Maps of the world’s areas most vulnerable to climate change show that it’s going to be particularly tough on those living in river deltas and low-lying coastal areas.
No one knows for sure, of course, how many people will be forced to migrate in the decades ahead. Forecasts range from 25 million up to 1 billion by midcentury, the high end cited by the London-based nonprofit Christian Aid in 2007. The most commonly cited estimate of climate migrants is about 200 million by 2050, according to the International Organization for Migration.
All these figures add up to one conclusion: Climate change doesn’t just forebode an ecological crisis, but a humanitarian one as well. That is to say, it’s not just polar bears and penguins whose survival is threatened, but that of people too.
Jane McAdam, author of Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, has analyzed “sinking islands” like Kiribati and whether entire populations might be legally cast adrift as “stateless persons” when countries cease to exist. For a state to be recognized under international law, it must generally meet various criteria, including having a defined territory and maintaining a permanent population.
A law professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, McAdam points out that rising seas have never before caused the extinction of a nation; typically, more conventional means, such as being absorbed by another country or broken apart by internal conflict, are the reasons for demise. The greatest challenge of a “disappearing state,” she said, appears to be maintaining a permanent population, because most islands are likely to be rendered uninhabitable by seawater intrusion and diminishing freshwater supplies long before they vanish beneath the waves.
McAdam said the prospect of becoming a modern-day Atlantis raises novel legal questions that have yet to be tested. She finds nothing in international law that would preclude Kiribati from reconstituting itself within another country, for example. At the same time, she said, even if Kiribati were to buy land in another state, this wouldn’t guarantee citizenship or other rights there to I-Kiribati migrants, possibly leaving them without the right to work, access to health care, or even permission to stay.
This isn’t just a hypothetical for scholarly debate. In 2014, Kiribati purchased more than 8 square miles of private land in Fiji at a cost of around $8 million. Fijian President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau has assured the I-Kiribati that some or all of them would be welcome to migrate 1,300 miles across open ocean waters to his country, if the need arose. “Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbors in their hour of need,” he said in 2014 at a state dinner hosted in Kiribati by President Anote Tong. “In a worst-case scenario and if all else fails, you will not be refugees.” The migration of people from Kiribati to Fiji has some history that may offer a precedent too. When the British Phosphate Commissioners resumed mining on Banaba, one of Kiribati’s islands, after World War II, they moved the surviving Banabans to a Fijian island the British had purchased. The Banabans, including those who remain in Fiji, still have representation in Kiribati’s Parliament.
Tong’s government has plans to adapt certain Kiribati islands to rising seas by building shoreline protections and improving water supplies. But it’s tough, he said, to build up “sea defenses” on atolls that are nothing but slivers of land that encircle a tidal lagoon like a Life Savers candy with chunks nibbled away. “If we had one solid piece of land, it would be easier,” he said, and that’s precisely why he is shopping for property. “The point that nobody has really grasped is: If we build up these lands [here], it’s going to cost billions of dollars,” he said. “We might as well be buying land for millions of dollars elsewhere.”
Tong appreciates the reassuring words of Fiji’s president. But it might not be politically acceptable for all of Kiribati’s people to crowd into Fiji. It’s perhaps for this reason that Tong is cautious, even coy, about the land purchase in Fiji. It’s a good investment in rare freehold land, he said, a place to grow food for Kiribati’s people and a possible refuge for some of them should it come to that. He’s keen on purchasing even more land, he said, citing the closest wealthy countries as prime locations. “I know Australia and New Zealand are selling off land to the Chinese,” Tong said. “So why shouldn’t we be buying land?”
Tong is perhaps best known for admonishing the world’s industrial powers for failing to cut fossil fuel emissions so they can continue to stoke their economic engines at the expense of sinking island countries. He often characterizes his country as “drowning”—due to wealthy countries’ irresponsibly high consumption of coal and oil—and says that, as a consequence, there will be an inevitable I-Kiribati diaspora. But he also does not want his people to be treated as desperate victims, looking for handouts.
The 62-year-old executive has closely trimmed salt-and-pepper hair, with expressive brown eyes and bushy black eyebrows that show his mixed I-Kiribati and Chinese heritage. He completed a university degree in New Zealand and a master’s at the London School of Economics. First elected in 2003, he will wrap up his term later this year.
In an interview in October, Tong dismissed the question of whether he had any sympathy for Teitiota or any appreciation for what he is attempting to do in New Zealand’s courts. “I’ve never promoted or advocated the idea of climate refugees,” Tong said. Nor has he championed any expansion of the refugee convention in order to offer protected status for people forced by rising sea levels to leave their homelands. “I must admit it may be out of a sense of pride. Basically, I don’t want to go begging.” He wants to organize plans so his people can migrate before disaster strikes. He calls this “migration with dignity.”
Tong has designed a program to inspire the next generation of I-Kiribati and train them as carpenters, electricians, auto mechanics, and nurses who can compete for jobs in other countries. He has nudged donor countries to help with training programs and to welcome skilled I-Kiribati immigrant workers who can fill labor shortages. To Tong, his people should be “deserving migrants.”
Although the program is off to a slow start, the president finds encouragement in the thousands of applicants seeking to move to New Zealand through its Pacific Access Category, a lottery that selects 75 people from Kiribati a year. “When it started off, that quota was never taken up because our people don’t like to go. They don’t like to leave home. But once we started talking about climate change and what the future holds for the young people, the queue started getting long.”
As many as 2.2 million people could be displaced from small island nations by the end of the century.
But while Tong takes issue with the idea of refugee-like protections for his people, some international officials are pushing it. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, has been positioning his agency to be a key player in taking care of those uprooted by climate-related disasters. Guterres, who took office in 2005, has long argued that climate change will lead to mass displacement and suggested repeatedly that his agency’s mandate should be expanded to help those affected. “These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily,” he said in a speech in 2011, marking the 60th anniversary of the refugee convention. “As forcibly displaced [and] not covered by any regime—by the refugee protection regime in particular—they find themselves in a legal void.”
But aside from a proposal by the Maldives, another island nation vulnerable to rising sea levels, to include climate refugees in the convention, few of the United Nations’ 193 member countries have shown much interest in expanding the commissioner’s mandate. The primary concern is that any further expansion will spread the commissioner’s staff too thin and require additional funds on top of its $5 billion budget.
Some organizations and policy experts are pushing for a separate international treaty—a companion to the 1951 refugee convention—that would give special status to those forced across borders due to natural disasters, flooding, or drought. Others, like the Nansen Initiative—launched by the governments of Norway and Switzerland—want to sidestep altogether the cumbersome U.N. process. Started in 2012, the initiative has been holding a series of meetings in regions vulnerable to climate- related displacement, namely the Pacific, Central America, the Horn of Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The gatherings are focusing on how to protect those displaced as a result of climate change, but what’s new is who is in the room: U.N. and other international agencies, regional organizations, activists, academics, and members of the public and private sectors. The objective is to reach a global consensus in Geneva this October. Ultimately, such findings could allow countries, independently, to adopt a set of guiding principles for helping those displaced by natural disasters.
All this uncertainty has contributed to the international interest in Teitiota’s case, which, through the courts, could carve its own protected legal path for climate refugees. If successful, it would “set off an avalanche as a precedent,” said Colin Rajah, the international coordinator of the Global Coalition on Migration, a Geneva-based migrant rights advocacy group. That said, he fears the case was doomed from the start: “On a purely legal and practical level, the push to qualify someone displaced by climate as a refugee isn’t going anywhere soon.”
In part, this is because it’s rare to find a country eager to accept more refugees— particularly a new category of refugees that could quickly add up to the millions. Moreover, as a practical matter, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone moves exclusively for climatic or other environmental reasons. That’s especially true in the case of slow-onset crises such as rising sea levels and advancing desertification from drought. Often, an ensuing disaster is merely an event that has pushed a migrant past the point of endurance, exacerbating existing economic strains or other troubles. Poor people have less resilience, and when they live in countries with little capacity to help them, they are doubly at risk.
Yet until the international community takes climate migration more seriously, there could be a day when people from Kiribati wind up in fenced refugee camps, rather than resettled into homes in a new country. And though Tong encourages his people to plan their exit strategy early, it will be all for naught if countries are not willing to take them in. He may not realize it, but Tong’s vision for his people’s future, in many ways, is the story of someone who has already left Kiribati: Ioane Teitiota.
After an October day in the chilly, rain-soaked fields, Teitiota plunked down on the couch in the living room of his tiny, two-bedroom stand-alone granny flat in one of Auckland’s suburbs that includes Maoris, Tongans, Samoans, and other Pacific Islanders. To Teitiota, this place represents the fulfillment of his modest dreams for his family.
Teitiota grew up in a traditional village of fishermen and farmers trying to harvest enough to get by. They paddled canoes to catch fish, waded into the shallows for clams and other shellfish, dug freshwater pits to grow giant swamp taro, and climbed trees to harvest coconuts and collect the sap of coconut flower stems—obtaining a syrup they call “toddy.” (It’s called sour toddy when fermented into cheap alcohol.) It’s a difficult, physically demanding lifestyle, and one that’s complicated because so little grows in Kiribati’s poor sandy soils under the broiling sun, or nothing at all when high tides and wind-driven waves cause seawater to wash over the land. Breadfruit from a large tree planted on mounded land remains a cherished part of the diet, but only when available.
Teitiota lived with his family until he was around 10 years old and had an unsettling encounter with a grown man, an island bully struggling with alcoholism and other demons. “He was a bit drunk at the time,” Teitiota said. “He talked to me and I talked back to him.” That was a serious mistake. “He was carrying a knife and trying to stab me.” The nimble, preteen Teitiota managed to avoid injury. Yet on some of Kiribati’s islands, such grudges apparently do not fade easily. And so Teitiota’s knife-wielding nemesis factored into his family’s decision to send him to the neighboring island of Abaiang to continue his studies at a boarding school run by the Kiribati Uniting Church.
Once he graduated from high school, Teitiota worked for a wholesale shipping company, distributing sacks of rice, cases of Spam, and other dried goods on his home island of Tabiteuea. When the company went bankrupt three years later, he found a job on a 175-foot Japanese fishing boat that hauled in big tunas with stout poles. While on shore leave on Tarawa, he met his wife, who was a typist at the headquarters of the Kiribati Uniting Church. They soon married, and after seven years at sea, he left the boat to be with his bride. He moved in with her and her extended family on reclaimed land behind a sea wall in Abarao, a village on South Tarawa. Their house had electricity, but no plumbing or toilets. A recent study by the Asian Development Bank estimates that 60 percent of people on South Tarawa lack access to improved toilets, leaving a large segment of society to defecate on the beach or in other unsanitary conditions.
Perhaps the remotest patch of urbanized blight on the planet, South Tarawa is so crowded these days that disputes over land ownership and boundaries have intensified, clogging Kiribati’s courts and elevating neighborhood tensions. While Teitiota was living with his wife’s family, fights broke out in the village, requiring police to intervene and restore order, Teitiota recalled in his March 2013 testimony before New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal. “Some used the knife,” he testified. “People got injured.… Yes, some people were killed.” Teitiota said that he was never directly engaged in such a fight, but both he and his wife were concerned about their safety walking through the neighborhood after dark.
In his testimony, he seemed even more troubled by his inability to find work on Tarawa. He didn’t like relying on his brother- in-law as the primary wage earner for a household of 15 people. “The pay that he received was hardly enough to go round,” he said. So when Teitiota and his wife obtained work visas in New Zealand, they jumped at the chance to leave.
In his new community in New Zealand, Teitiota remains well appreciated. His boss, Fred Argent, the owner of the farm where he works, is eager to keep the Pacific Islander as his foreman. “He’s a hard worker,” Argent said. “He’s a good, honest man.” But in Kiribati, the islander’s legal posturing to stay in New Zealand has made him a public target of scorn. And the criticisms go beyond President Tong’s: Some islanders, in heated online comments, have suggested greeting Teitiota at the airport with placards telling him to go back to his new home.
Teitiota realizes now that his testimony and court filings about frequent flooding and health hazards in Kiribati have unintentionally wounded national pride. He has voiced concern about his children not having enough food or getting sick—a claim ridiculed by those in Kiribati who seem offended at how he’s portraying life on the islands to outsiders. Yet since this case has come to light, Tarawa residents have been alarmed that 2,400 children fell ill and nine children died after picking up a rotavirus, likely from sewage-contaminated water. Aside from the widespread practice of outdoor defecation, pit latrines and flush toilets often leak into the freshwater lens, according to a 2012 presidential report on South Tarawa; all groundwater has tested positive for fecal coliform. Other infectious diseases are taking advantage of the crowding in this island nation’s shantytowns. Tuberculosis is on the upswing. Leprosy is spreading.
“Some people in the I-Kiribati community, they think I’m running down the island,” Teitiota said, and he winced. At the family home in Tarawa where Teitiota lived with his wife’s family, his sister-in-law started crying when I came to talk to her. She said the family asked the radio station to quit broadcasting stories about the case. Arabaio Erika, the family breadwinner and eldest brother, scowled when I showed him pictures of his youngest sister, her husband, and their three children. He abruptly left me, saying he didn’t have time to talk, his shoulders tight and raised as he hurried away. Angua Erika, Teitiota’s wife, said she gets the same cold-shoulder treatment from her brother every time she tries to telephone him.
Teitiota said he sometimes feels “caught in the middle” between New Zealand and Kiribati—where he is both accepted and rejected for different reasons. “Everybody loves their country,” he said. But his outlook has changed since his children were born in a nation without the troubles bearing down on his homeland. “If I were to go back home, I know there is no future there for me or my children.”
Since Teitiota’s last court rejection in May 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has completed its fifth assessment, with ever-stronger language about the trouble ahead for the Earth. “It is virtually certain that global mean [sea-level rise rates] are accelerating,” reads the chapter on small islands. On top of waves and storm surges, the rising seas will “present severe sea-flood and erosion risks for low-lying coastal areas and atoll islands.” The report highlights forecasts that as many as 2.2 million people could be displaced from small island nations by the end of the century.
Such dire predictions fill Teitiota’s lawyer with hope. “It’s something we can hang an appeal on,” Kidd said, “a change of circumstances.”
In terms of the new case he is preparing to file, Kidd is optimistic that the Supreme Court justices will give Teitiota a hearing. “My feeling is that they will listen to the case because it’s of international interest,” Kidd said. “They like to get involved in a little bit of judicial activism every now and then, just like the federal courts in the United States.”
The attorney plans to renew a second legal argument, seeking asylum for his clients under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a U.N. treaty that, among other things, protects against being “arbitrarily deprived of [one’s] life.” Teitiota’s case failed on those grounds in previous appeals because Kidd didn’t point out any specific action, or lack of one, by Kiribati’s government that threatens Teitiota’s life. Nor did the attorney show the situation in Kiribati to be so precarious that the lives of Teitiota’s family’s members would be in imminent danger should they be forced to return home. Timing seems to be the critical sticking point.
Although some legal experts contend it may be years before imminent harm from climate change reaches the point of triggering human rights protections, Kidd disagrees. His case has been fortified by the calamitous forecasts of the world’s leading climate scientists, he said, and he thinks now is the time—and Kiribati is the place. “Whether you roast someone slowly or throw them in the fire, the end result is the same: Death is death.”
The U.N. Human Rights Committee, the Geneva-based body that oversees implementation of the ICCPR, reviews individual cases to consider whether human rights have been violated. “If we are not successful with the Supreme Court,” Kidd said, “we’ll go to Geneva.” Kidd likes to quote his hero, Mahatma Gandhi, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
For his part, Teitiota is along for the ride.