June 20, 2021

People urgently fleeing climate crisis cannot be sent home, UN rules

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

The landmark ruling centres on the case of Ioane Teitiota, whose home – the Pacific Island of Kiribati – is threatened by rising sea levels.

Mr 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.

What about Mr Teitiota?
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 Mr Teitiota’s specific claim, which was that his and his family’s lives were endangered in Kiribati.

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Mr 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.

Mr 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.

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