Something rather odd went down in Parliament yesterday: a white man accused a Maori woman of carrying "paternalistic, colonialist, white person's guilt".

It's not an accusation you expect to hear in response to a very serious question: does the Government, asked Green Party MP Denise Roche, have "a plan to allow people displaced by climate change to relocate to New Zealand?" The answer, according to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, is no. The Government does not have any "specific" policies or plans.

READ MORE: Climate change not criteria for accepting refugees - Minister

When Ms Roche pressed Mr Woodhouse on whether this was of any comfort to the thousands of Pacific Islanders who are watching the ocean swallow their homes, the minister delivered his ridiculous comeback. But not only was it factually incorrect to accuse a Maori woman of white person's guilt, it's also an insult to the climate change refugees who may only be days away from deportation to Kiribati.


On Tuesday morning, immigration officers arrested Ioane Teitiota - a Kiribati man whose application for refugee status went all the way to the Supreme Court (the court held that the earlier judicial decisions apply and Mr Teitiota cannot claim refugee status under the Refugee Convention 1951). Immigration New Zealand has signalled that deportation will happen within the next week.

READ MORE: Family turn to UN after court rejects refugee bid

However, there's growing pressure for Mr Woodhouse or associate Immigration Minister Craig Foss to exercise their "absolute discretion" under the Immigration Act and renew Mr Teitiota's visa, if only temporarily while his case awaits hearing at the United Nations Human Rights Committee. If Mr Woodhouse doesn't grant a reprieve in the interests of natural justice, more and more New Zealanders are asking him to do so out of basic human decency.

That's because Mr Teitiota and his wife have three New Zealand-born and raised children. They have known no life but our own. They have never been to Kiribati. The minister's lack of compassion will cause tremendous hardship in their lives. Can you imagine how traumatic it must be when your own Government deports you?

The Teitiota children never became New Zealand citizens because the previous Government removed what's traditionally called the jus soli, literally meaning the right of the soil. This is a right that extends back to Ancient Rome - and is also consistent with elements of tikanga Maori - that entitles any person born in a particular nation to citizenship of that nation.

But even if we recognise that the Teitiotas are New Zealanders in principle, in the eyes of bureaucracy they are not. Even though only Mr Teitiota was arrested - and held without fresh clothes and a shower for at least 48 hours - the Government intends to deport the entire family. Unless the minister intervenes.

It was only one week ago that, in the spirit of compassion and solidarity with refugees, the Government agreed to lift our refugee quota. What happened to that compassion? Was it mere political expediency or a genuine commitment? If it was genuine the minister's next step is clear.

If the Teitiota children are deported to Kiribati they will have to adjust to a new culture, a new environment and even build up immunities to new diseases. They will most likely live on Tarawa, the main island where dead bodies contaminate the freshwater lens, population density spreads disease and ocean creep is poisoning breadfruit trees and taro plantations.

We're obligated to do our bit to combat climate change. That doesn't just mean reducing emissions, it means helping those displaced by it too. The minister has the power - now the question is whether he and his government have the compassion to act.

Morgan Godfery is a writer and trade unionist for the First Union based in Wellington. He specialises in Maori politics and indigenous issues.