Climate Refugees In Imminent Danger Cannot Be Deported Home, Rights Committee Rules

Families being relocated due to flooding and landslides in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Families being relocated due to flooding and landslides in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. UN Women/Allison Joyce

Governments must take into account the risks of climate change when considering a refugee’s claim for asylum, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled in a landmark case. The decision could protect refugees from climate change-stricken nations from being deported back to their home countries.

“The ruling says if you have an immediate threat to your life due to climate change, due to the climate emergency, and if you cross the border and go to another country, you should not be sent back because you would be at risk of your life, just like in a war or in a situation of persecution,” Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Reuters.

“We must be prepared for a large surge of people moving against their will,” he said. “I wouldn’t venture to talk about specific numbers, it’s too speculative, but certainly we’re talking about millions here.”

The UN ruling on Monday was on a case by Ioane Teitiota, a refugee from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, against the government of New Zealand. According to The New York Times, Teitiota migrated to New Zealand in 2007 and applied for refugee status after his visa expired in 2010, arguing that rising sea levels had forced him to leave Kiribati. The island nation is one of the world’s hardest hit by climate change; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that rising seas, coastal erosion, and freshwater contamination could render the country uninhabitable as early as 2050. New Zealand deported Teitiota back to Kiribati in 2015.

The UN committee ruled that New Zealand was justified in deporting Teitiota, arguing he wasn’t in immediate danger. But it said that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their human rights.”

“The decision sets a global precedent,” Kate Schuetze, Pacific Researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “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.”