On 20 January the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that returning people to countries where their lives could be threatened by climate change may violate their human rights and be unlawful. This is a landmark ruling because it’s the first time the committee has recognised that climate refugees exist. It opens the door to refugee protection for those whose lives are threatened by climate change.
The ruling acknowledges the severe challenges of climate change and puts pressure on nations to do more to prevent it and protect people from its effects. However many ambiguities remain about climate-linked migration, particularly in and from Africa.
The case was brought to the UN by Kiribati national Ioane Teitiota against New Zealand. Kiribati is a group of low-lying Pacific islands that don’t rise higher than 3m above sea level. Climate change and rapid population growth have led to severe overcrowding, fresh water and food shortages, and violent land disputes.
The climate change risks included rising sea levels, saltwater contamination, flooding and land erosion. Teitiota requested asylum in 2010 on the basis that these effects posed a threat to his and his family’s lives. New Zealand rejected his case and deported him in 2015.