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New grounds for climate refugees – a landmark case provides hope

New grounds for climate refugees – a landmark case provides hope
05 May
2020
A landmark ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee provides hope for asylum seekers who have been displaced due to the climate crisis

Ioane Teitiota was deported from New Zealand to his home country of Kiribati in September 2015 after his asylum application – based on claims that his home country was no longer habitable due to climate change – was rejected. Following his appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), a landmark ruling by the UN body has now set out new obligations for host nations. According to a report Amnesty International, the ruling means that ‘governments must take into account the human rights violations caused by the climate crisis when considering deportation of asylum seekers.’

Teitiota is from Tarawa, a small island in the Republic of Kiribati, which sits no more than three meters above sea level. The majority of the population live subsistence livelihoods heavily dependent on environmental resources. However, as sea levels rise due to the effects of climate change, freshwater stocks have become contaminated, and waste has accumulated, together posing increasing health risks for local populations. Climate change-related coastal erosion has also destroyed housing and arable land.

Regularly encountering violent disputes over land and with restricted access to safe drinking water, Teitiota migrated to New Zealand with his family in 2010. He applied for refugee status, but was denied asylum by New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Teitiota’s case was taken to the HRC on the basis that by deporting him, New Zealand violated his right to life, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Teitiota argued that the climate-induced scarcity of habitable space in Kiribati threatened the lives of him and his family. While the HRC ultimately found against Teitota, it did recognise the serious threat to life faced by similar climate-induced asylum seekers. In a press release issued by the UN Human Rights High Commission, Yuval Shany, Vice Chair of the HRC said: ‘[the ruling] sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims.’

The HRC reasoned that climate change-induced harm can occur both through sudden-onset events (such as storms and flooding), and slow-onset processes (such as sea level rise and land degradation). As the effects of climate change increasingly threaten the livelihoods of impoverished populations in low-lying regions, the ruling could boost asylum claims related to the effects of climate change.

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