Laundry hangs on the edge of a lagoon near Funafuti, Tuvalu, in 2004. (Richard Vogel/AP)

New Zealand could become the world’s first country to essentially recognize climate change as an official reason to seek asylum or residence elsewhere, a government minister indicated in an interview Tuesday. If implemented, up to 100 individuals per year could be admitted to the island nation on a newly created visa category, according to an initial campaign promise the proposal which is now being considered is based on.

This may appear relatively insignificant, given that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts 50 to 200 million people to be forced out of their homes because of climate change by 2050. Yet the announcement has still stunned environmental activists who have long demanded such resettlement programs but have been blocked by governments and courts — including New Zealand’s Supreme Court.

Although New Zealand’s approach does not bind other host countries, the experiment could be used as a role model, both in national courts and in the public debate. If implemented, the New Zealand proposal would likely be used by activists in European nations such as Sweden or Germany to pressure their own governments into creating similar schemes.

The 1951 U.N. refugee convention, written long before there was such a thing, does not recognize victims of climate change.

Host nations have so far been reluctant to change the convention, prompting some islands which are expected to be hit hardest by climate change to try to reframe the problem as a solution. The Pacific island of Kiribati launched a “Migration With Dignity” scheme, which trains citizens to be the kind of highly-skilled workers in short supply in New Zealand or elsewhere.

Kiribati’s program was created on the assumption that large multinational corporations may hold far more lobbying powers to change visa regulations than poor nations affected by climate change. Companies in richer countries such as New Zealand, the United States or Germany often face difficulties in recruiting skilled workers for certain tasks, and have pressured governments to relax visa restrictions much more successfully than nations such as Tuvalu or Kiribati could have done themselves.

This strategy may work for some smaller islands, but not all climate refugees can become highly skilled workers.

The vast majority of them will likely either face the prospect of staying in their home countries — if they still exist — or becoming “second class” citizens abroad who are not officially recognized as refugees.

Activists in New Zealand have led international efforts to prevent such a scenario, given that their comparatively wealthy country is surrounded by smaller island nations such as Tuvalu or Kiribati, which are just two meters above sea level and could be fully submerged in approximately 30 to 50 years.

In a major step forward for proponents of such efforts, New Zealand’s Green Party promised the introduction of a new visa category in the run-up to September elections. The party has now become a coalition partner in the new Labour-led government.

“The lives and livelihoods of many of our Pacific neighbors are already being threatened, and we need to start preparing for the inevitable influx of climate refugees,” New Zealand’s UNICEF director Vivien Maidaborn wrote in an op-ed this month, in which she urged the government to make good on that promise.

In June 2014, a family from Tuvalu was granted residency for the first time by the country’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal after it claimed to be threatened by climate change there. At the time, experts told me that they were skeptical whether the ruling would have a wider impact, though. The family succeeded because it claimed “exceptional humanitarian grounds,” which is a wording recognized in New Zealand’s immigration legislation but not by many other governments, said Vernon Rive, a senior lecturer in law at AUT Law School in Auckland. Others factors, apart from climate change, played into the court’s 2014 decision to allow the family to stay, as well. Since then, similar cases have been declined and asylum seekers deported.

Given the resistance of many countries to make changes to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and the fact that court rulings in other cases don’t apply, legal scholars have explored a third alternative: the creation of legal arrangements on a bilateral or regional basis. New Zealand’s new proposal would fall into that category. It would mostly be open to climate change refugees from Pacific islands and would necessitate close collaboration between authorities in New Zealand and in the affected nations.

Those island nations have long been open to talks. At least in some richer countries such as New Zealand, there appears to be a growing awareness that time is now indeed running out, as a new report published Monday by the British medical journal the Lancet warned. Its authors concluded that climate change is essentially a “threat multiplier” for all global health hazards, with manifestations that will be “unequivocal and potentially irreversible.”

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