Climate refugees can’t be forced home, UN rules

22 January, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Climate refugees can’t be forced home, UN rules

People fleeing immediate danger due to the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home, the UN has said, reports BBC.

The landmark ruling centres on the case of Ioane Teitiota, whose home - the Pacific Island of Kiribati - is threatened by rising sea levels. Teitiota applied for protection in New Zealand in 2013.

The UN rejected his claim, saying he wasn’t in immediate danger, but the wording of its ruling allows others to claim asylum based on climate change.

Sending asylum seekers home when their lives are threatened by the climate crisis “may expose individuals to a violation of their rights” - specifically, it said, their right to life.

“Given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realised,” its decision added.

The UN ruling - which is non-binding - is the clearest warning to countries that they may be breaching a person’s human rights if they send them back to a country at immediate risk of climate-related danger.

But it found against Teitiota’s specific claim, which was that his and his family’s lives were endangered in Kiribati. Teitiota told the UN’s Human Rights Committee that he lived on the island of South Tarawa, which was struggling with overcrowding.

The population of the island increased from 1,641 in 1947 to about 50,000 in 2010, because rising sea levels had made neighbouring islands uninhabitable. This had led to social tension, unrest and violence, he said.

Teitiota added that crops were already being ruined on Kiribati, and that the island was likely to become uninhabitable within the next 10 to 15 years.

Speaking to BBC News in 2015, Mr Teitiota had likened his situation to that of refugees escaping conflict: “I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me.”

But courts in New Zealand rejected his claim - a decision that has now been upheld by the UN.