'Global Precedent' Set as UN Rules Climate Refugees Cannot Be Sent Back to Life-Threatening Conditions

Human rights advocates on Monday applauded a “ground-breaking” ruling by a United Nations panel which stated that climate refugees seeking asylum cannot legally be sent back to their home countries if they face life-threatening conditions due to the climate crisis.

“Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights,” ruled the U.N. Human Rights Committee, “thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.”

Amnesty International praised the decision as “good news” and said in a statement that it could help prompt the international community to take concrete action to sharply reduce fossil fuel emissions as quickly as possible in hopes of limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius.

Dan Sohege of the human rights advocacy group Stand for All called the ruling an “excellent step forward in refugee rights.”

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The committee handed down its ruling earlier this month in a case brought by Ioane Teitiota, a man who applied for asylum in New Zealand in 2013 after sea level rise and other conditions in his home country of Kiribati forced him and his family to leave.

“The decision sets a global precedent. 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.”
—Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International

Kiribati is expected to be uninhabitable in the coming decades—as soon as 10 to 15 years from now, according to Teitiota’s case—as rising sea levels leads to overcrowding on the Pacific nation’s islands. Teitiota took his case to the committee in 2016 after being deported back to Kiribati by New Zealand’s government the previous year.

He argued that the lack of fresh water and difficulty growing crops in Kiribati has caused health problems for him and his family, as well as land disputes.