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Landmark UN ruling bans countries from returning refugees to nations threatened by climate crisis

A landmark ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee has found it unlawful to return refugees to countries where their lives may be threatened by the impacts of the climate crisis – a move which could set a precedent for future protection claims.

The committee’s judgement centred on the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati, who in 2013 claimed the effects of climate change and sea level rise forced him to migrate from the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati to New Zealand. 

The island is at risk of becoming the world’s first country to disappear due to rising sea levels caused by global heating. Fresh water has become scarce, and efforts to combat sea level rise have largely been ineffective.

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In 2015 authorities in New Zealand denied Mr Teitiota’s claim of asylum as a “climate refugee” and he was deported back to Kiribati on the basis that his life was not at risk. 

He was denied asylum by New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. He then took his case to the Human Rights Committee on the grounds that New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by deporting him to Kiribati. 

The committee upheld the New Zealand courts’ decision, saying the impacts of rising sea levels would not be fully felt for 10-15 years, giving the nation time to try and address them.

However, while the committee did not find in Mr Teitiota’s favour, the judgement said: “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights … thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.”

This indicates the Human Rights Committee recognises climate change presents serious threats to the right to life and therefore decision-makers need to take this into account when examining challenges to deportation.  

“The decision sets a global precedent,” said Kate Schuetze, Pacific Researcher at Amnesty International. 

“It says a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”  

“The message is clear: Pacific Island states do not need to be underwater before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life.”

She added: “The Pacific Islands are the canary in the coal mine for climate induced migrants. Low-lying island states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are only one or two metres above sea level. The people there are exposed to severe climate impacts today, including limited access to habitable land, clean drinking water and subsistence living. Governments must consider this dangerous reality and a heating planet’s imminent threat to Pacific peoples’ lives and livelihoods.” 

According to the judgement, the court heard that in South Tarawa, 60 sea walls were in place by 2005. 

However, storm surges and high spring tides had overcome many of the defences, caused flooding of residential areas and forcing many people to relocate. Attempts have also been made to diversify crop production, but the health of the population has “generally deteriorated”, as indicated by vitamin A deficiencies, malnutrition, fish poisoning, and other ailments reflecting the situation of food insecurity. 

Two Human Rights Committee members formally dissented from the ruling, and supported Mr Teitiota’s claim.

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