climate refugees UN decision
Photograph: UNHCR

Climate Refugees Acknowledged in UN Decision

In a landmark decision, the UN Human Rights Committee has found it unlawful to return refugees to their countries of origin where their lives would be at risk due to the climate.

This comes as the global climate crisis continues to forcibly displace individuals and communities from their homes and countries.

As it currently stands, governments are under no obligation to grant refugee status to those who make asylum claims on the basis of climate-related threats to life.

A ‘refugee’ is legally defined as an individual who faces persecution as a result of specific circumstances, such as their political affiliations, their religion, their gender and/or sexuality, etc., or those who face war, conflict and/or violence.

Refugees battle against floods in Somalia, forcing them to leave their homes . [Image: Brendan Bannon, AFP/Getty Images, How Stuff Works].

However, those at risk as a result of climate-related disasters are not presently included within the legal definition of a ‘refugee’, allowing governments to return displaced people to their country of origin.

The reality, of course, demands that we amend these definitions – both legally and culturally.

Mass migration as a result of climate change has become increasingly common; severe droughts, flooding and high temperatures destroy homes and communities, leaving people with no alternative but to flee.

Approximately 227.6 million people were displaced by weather and geophysical disasters between 2008 and 2016.

The UN’s decision emerges as the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, provoked a re-evaluation of the current law surrounding those seeking asylum.

Severe droughts, flooding and high temperatures destroy homes and communities, leaving people with no alternative but to flee

Teitiota applied for asylum in New Zealand after his working visa expired in 2010, having expressed grave concern regarding rising sea levels which are gradually making Kiribati uninhabitable. He also made clear the difficulties he faced in accessing safe drinking water and how this endangered he and his family.

His claim was refused by New Zealand courts who argued that he did not face ‘serious harm’ despite the challenges he outlined. Teitiota was deported from New Zealand to Kiribati in September 2015.

Approximately 227.6 million people were displaced by weather and geophysical disasters between 2008 and 2016

The UN’s new ruling, however, implores governments to take the climate crisis into consideration before returning individuals to countries at risk.

Governments across the globe must step up and address the refugee crisis. At present, developing nations far outweigh the likes of the US and parts of Europe in providing aid and support for displaced people.

With millions more expected to be displaced by global warming over the next decade, the UN’s judgement offers hope to those who require robust legal protections amidst the horrors of the global climate crisis.

[Header image by Saiful Huq Omi, UNHCR]

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Holly Barrow