Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Climate change could become grounds for asylum – UN ruling

22 January 20200 comments

Governments must take into account the human rights violations caused by the climate crisis when considering deportation of asylum seekers, according to a ruling by a United Nations human rights body.

Kiribati national Ioane Teitiota brought a case against the government of New Zealand at the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in February 2016 after authorities denied his claim of asylum as a ‘climate refugee’.

He was deported from New Zealand back to the Pacific Island nation in September 2015.

This month the HRC delivered its decision on the case earlier this month and while the Committee found that Teitiota’s deportation had not been unlawful because he didn’t face an immediate danger to his life in Kiribati, it recognised that climate change represented a serious threat to the right to life and therefore decision-makers need to take this into account when examining challenges to deportation.  

Human rights activists say the decision suggests that future claims might be successful where the evidence shows “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights”. 

Mr Teitiota claimed he faced land disputes and difficulties accessing safe drinking water in his home country as the result of the climate crisis, and therefore was forced to migrate with his family to New Zealand where he applied for refugee status after his visa expired in 2010.

He was denied asylum by New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. He then took his case to the HRC on the grounds that New Zealand violated his right to life under the ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’, by deporting him to Kiribati. 

Amnesty International says the decision sets a global precedent

“It says a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Amnesty researcher Kate Schuetze said.

 “The message is clear: Pacific Island states do not need to be under water before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life,” Ms Schuetze said.  

“The Pacific Islands are the canary in the coal mine for climate induced migrants. Low-lying island states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are only one or two metres above sea level. The people there are exposed to severe climate impacts today, including limited access to habitable land, clean drinking water and subsistence living. Governments must consider this dangerous reality and a heating planet’s imminent threat to Pacific peoples’ lives and livelihoods,” she said. 

The committee decision said that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under articles 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states”.