Data source
Date of text
20 Jul 2015
Seat of court
Original language


Type of text
National - higher court
Reference number
[2015] NZSC 107
Court name
Supreme Court of New Zealand
Elias, CJ
William Young
Arnold and O'Regan JJ
Climate change, climate justice, environmental migration, Human rights, Litigation, sea level rise, small island developing country


The applicant applied for refugee status and protected persons status on the grounds of suffering from the effects of climate change in his country of origin, Kiribati, including steadily rising water levels and associated environmental degradation, which the applicant feared would forcibly displace inhabitants to leave their islands. The Refugee and Protection Office declined his application. In appeal, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal accepted the applicant’s concerns, but dismissed his appeal on the grounds that the applicant was not a refugee according to the definition in the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Convention) or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). After being refused leave of appeal by the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the applicant appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court found that the applicant does not, if returned to Kiribati, face “serious harm” and there is no evidence that the Government of Kiribati is failing to take steps to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation to the extent that it can. Therefore, the Court dismissed the appeal, but stated that the judgment should not be taken as ruling out the possibility of extending such protection in an appropriate case.


Environmental Legal Questions:

  • Does the material scope of New Zealand refugee law, including the UN Refugee Convention and the ICCPR, guarantee protection to a person facing environmental or climate displacement? A person must be recognized as a refugee in accordance with the Immigration Act if he or she is a refugee within the meaning of the Convention. The Tribunal found that the applicant must establish that he is at risk of “being persecuted,” and that status be linked to one of the five Convention grounds. The Court found that the applicant does not meet the definition of refugee as he was not at risk of being persecuted if returned to Kiribati.