Environment, News, Pacific

Landmark ruling opens door for climate refugees

A historic ruling based on a complaint filed by a Pacific Islander in New Zealand has opened the door to climate-change asylum claims.

The UN Human Rights Committee made the landmark ruling based on the case of Ioane Teitota from the island of Kiribati, which is threatened by rising sea levels.

The committee ruled that countries cannot deport people who have sought asylum due to climate-related threats.

Teitota who lodged the complaint in 2015 after being deported from New Zealand when his asylum application was denied argued his right to life had been violated, as rising sea levels and other destructive effects of climate change had made his homeland uninhabitable.  

He said he was forced to migrate from the island of Tarawa, to New Zealand, due to impacts such as a lack of freshwater due to saltwater intrusion, erosion of arable land, and associated violent land disputes which had resulted in numerous fatalities. 

Health Promotion Forum of NZ’s Pacific Strategist, Dr Viliami Puloka said HPF supported the ruling by the UN as a ‘human rights issue’.

Dr Puloka said most Pacific Islanders didn’t want to leave their homes or countries, but if “it had to go down to the wire,” and they were forced to leave because of the impacts of climate change, then the ruling would provide support to their claims for relocation.

Dr Colin Tukuitonga, former Director General of the Pacific Community agreed that for Pacific Islanders, or anyone else, relocating or moving within their own country or to other countries was a last resort

In his presentation at the 23rd IUHPE World Health Promotion Conference, co-hosted by the Health Promotion Forum of NZ in Rotorua, he said climate change was now the most important threat to Pacific lives and livelihoods and there was potential for an ‘ecological disaster”.

SPC, he said, had first-hand experience with the stress involved in relocating and in the last few years had been assisting the Fiji government to relocate villages up to higher ground as a result of the climate crisis.

“Relocating communities might sound simple, but relocating your village, leaving behind what you know is a big deal to the families …”

While the UN Committee determined that Teitota’s right to life had not been violated as sufficient protection measures had been implemented in Kiribati, UN member Yuval Shany said: “Nevertheless, this ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims”. 

The Committee further clarified that people seeking asylum are not required to prove that they would face immediate harm, if deported back to their home countries. 

Their rationale was that because climate-related events can occur both suddenly – such as intense storms or flooding – or over time through slow-onset processes such as sea level rise and land degradation, either situation could spur people to seek safety elsewhere. 

Additionally, Committee members underlined that the international community must assist countries adversely affected by climate change. 

While the judgment is not binding, it does emphasise that countries have a legal responsibility to protect people whose lives are threatened by the climate crisis.