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Climate Refugees Have Rights, UNHRC Announces

“What this new U.N. Human Rights Committee decision does is allow lawyers to actually use this precedent-setting text to argue in future court cases [for] a client that fits within this kind of narrow definition.”

The UN Human Rights Commission recently ruled that a refugee’s rights could be violated if they are forced to return to a homeland under immediate threat from climate change. Amid the international discussion on climate change, fueled recently by activists such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and global endeavors to combat it, like the Paris Climate Accord, the possibility of climate migration and refuge has come to the forefront. 

The UNHRC decision centered around the 2015 case of loane Teitiota, a migrant from the island nation of Kiribati who applied for refugee status in New Zealand. He argued climate change had put his life in danger in Kiribati due to a lack of freshwater in addition to agricultural production difficulties, according to an Eco Watch article by Jordan Davidson. 

A decreasing amount of habitable land — a meager 310 sq. mi. — has gradually created a population shift to South Tarawa, Teitiota’s home island in the cluster that comprises Kiribati. In 1947, only 1,641 called South Tarawa home; now 50,000 live there.

Food and water are not the only issues that have arisen in Kiribati due to the population shift, Stephanie Garcia wrote for PBS. A shortage of land has given way to land disputes that have even led to casualties, she reported. 

Teitiota was deported from New Zealand in 2015, but the UNHRC eventually made its way to his case. Upon reviewing it, the panel managed to rule against Teitiota while simultaneously opening the door for further climate refugee cases. 

In Teitiota’s case in particular, the committee essentially decided the urgency is not great enough, although it did concede that the entire state of Kiribati will likely be uninhabitable in as few as 10 years. However, that leaves ample time “for intervening acts by the republic of Kiribati, with the assistance of the International community, to take affirmative measures to protect, and where necessary, relocate its population,” The Guardian reported.

The tribunal also said Teitiota had other options for moving within his home state. Furthermore, it said that not all of the issues, such as sanitation, are a direct result of climate change, according to Maggie Koerth at Five Thirty Eight.

The other side of the two-fold announcement was the UNHRC’s acknowledgment that international human rights laws apply to climate refugees, a term the UN has yet to officially define. 

Presently, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is the standard for determining who qualifies for asylum. Officially, a refugee is someone who migrates due “to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” 

The UNHRC announcement is neither binding, nor does it explicitly recommend the UN add climate change as an official refugee class. Even so, it has thrust climate refugees into the limelight, perhaps in part because of the severity of the issue.

“A non-binding decision simply states that this is a possibility and that we need to figure out safe legal pathways to ensure that people are not vulnerable because they’re moving due to climate change,” said Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager of Refugee International’s climate displacement program. “What this new U.N. Human Rights Committee decision does is allow lawyers to actually use this precedent-setting text to argue in future court cases [for] a client that fits within this kind of narrow definition.”

According to The World Bank, there will be 143 million climate refugees by 2050, predominantly driven from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. For people like Teitiota, there is no solution that would allow them to stay in their homeland. The lack of space is the most obvious problem, but institutionally, the government of a minute island nation like Kiribati have inadequate resources to address the problem of climate change. 

Teitiota’s case was one of many that have cropped up and as the situation worsens, more are sure to follow. While the UNHRC ruled against him, it did affirm that people have a reasonable expectation of human rights in regard to climate. However, the committee stopped short of defining those rights and specifying exactly which type of case should be accepted when migrants apply for asylum due to climate change. 

Since the commission’s ruling is non-binding, no immediate change will follow from it, and that is the problem for many who live in endangered states. By the UNHRC’s own estimate, there are only 10 to 15 years before some states, such as Kiribati, are entirely uninhabitable. International law is not the speediest of processes, especially when it comes to the UN. 

While the UNHRC provided an avenue for potential future asylum seekers, it did nothing to guarantee their rights and without global cooperation, the situation is unlikely to improve in time. In the not-so-distant future, legal scholars might debate whether a refugee can be deported to a nation that exists only underwater.

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis is Managing Editor for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle in Kansas and also covers International news for Inside Over, a Milan-based global affairs publication. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Outside of writing, he enjoys photography and one day hopes to return to video production. Learn more about him at his website danieldavis.la.

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