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Understanding the developing climate refugee crisis

The World Bank estimates that by 2050 more than 140 million people will be displaced as a result of climate change. What will the global community do to save these people?

In 2018 alone, 17.2 million new displacements associated with natural disasters in 148 countries and territories were recorded.

Droughts, tropical cyclones, flooding, coastal erosion, desertification and sea-level rise are some of the many forms of climate change that we witness today.

Climate refugees or environmental migrants are those who flee their country due to natural disasters or climate change effects such as these.

Freshwater scarcity, food insecurity, rapid spread of diseases, scarcity of land, and social tensions have made life increasingly difficult for them.

Those that are severely affected by these conditions hope to find asylum abroad, but existing legislations surrounding refugee law are a major obstacle in their way.

What does refugee law say about climate refugees?

As per the 1951 Refugee Convention, there are two main requirements for an individual to request refugee status. Firstly, they must have a ‘well-found fear of persecution’.

While there is no established definition of ‘persecution’, it is usually considered to be a situation where individuals feel threatened due to the actions of their government.

However, it can be argued that a population which is vulnerable to nature’s hostilities is facing persecution. Still, its official definition is yet to be agreed upon.

Secondly, asylum seekers must base their claim of persecution on one of the following- race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion.

Clearly, under this convention, climate change is not a basis for requesting or granting refugee status. Therefore, climate refugees do not really qualify as ‘refugees’.

Who is Ioane Teitiota?

Ioane Teitiota is a citizen of Kiribati, a small island in the South Pacific. He migrated from Tarawa in Kiribati to New Zealand with his family to escape the effects of climate change.

But in 2015, Ioane and his family were deported to their home country because their visa had expired.

In February 2016, he brought a case against the New Zealand government at the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) after his claim of asylum as a ‘climate refugee’ was rejected.

Ioane claims that the situation in Tarawa had become unstable due to sea level rise, and attempts to combat it were ineffective.

In South Tarawa, 60 sea walls were in place by 2005. Even so, storm surges and high spring tides had caused flooding of residential areas, forcing many to relocate.

Freshwater sources were contaminated and declared unfit for consumption. Consequently, 60% of the population relied on ration supplies distributed by the public utilities board.

Most nutritious crops were available, but the health of the population had generally deteriorated, as indicated by vitamin A deficiencies, malnutrition, fish poisoning, and other ailments.

The island is sinking and habitable land is scarce, which led to a housing crisis that was responsible for social tensions in the region.

The UN HRC Tribunal said that Ioane did not face any serious risk of being persecuted if he returned to Kiribati. Besides, the government was taking necessary steps to help the population adapt to climate change.

Moreover, he could not provide any proof of his inability to grow crops or access freshwater. The tribunal noted that while it was difficult to grow crops, it wasn’t impossible.

There wasn’t any evidence to prove that Ioane could not obtain the freshwater supplies that the public utilities board was providing.

Ioane mentioned that Kiribati would probably remain habitable for another 10-15 years. To this, the committee responded by claiming that that timeframe was sufficient for the government and the international community to take necessary steps to protect or relocate the population.

According to the tribunal, Ioane’s case in particular wasn’t as extreme as a refugee appeal should be, especially if it’s relating to climate change. The conditions on the island weren’t so dangerous that his life would be jeopardized if he should return.

Due to lack of evidence, and the aforementioned reasons, the committee ruled in favour of New Zealand.

Will climate refugees ever be accepted as ‘refugees’?

The ruling in the Ioane Teitiota case is ground-breaking because it specifically mentions that in the future, there is scope for people fleeing the effects of climate change to be recognised as refugees.

The UN HRC stated, ‘While in many cases the effects of environmental change and natural disasters will not bring affected persons within the scope of the Refugee Convention, no hard and fast rules or presumptions of non-applicability exist.’

The tribunal added that any country who receives a refugee fleeing extreme climatic conditions must accommodate them. If they shall return such a refugee to their home country (assumed to be inhabitable), they would be violating their right to life.

The government of Kiribati seems to be trying their best to help the population adapt to climate change. They have built sea walls, planted mangroves, and have even bought land on Fiji in case the island sinks.

Thousands of miles away in Africa, Niger has adopted a law for the protection of people fleeing violence, floods, and droughts, making it the first African country to do so!

Niger’s law is based on the Kampala Convention, a 2009 African Union Treaty, which establishes guiding principles for the protection of environmental migrants displaced within the borders of their country.

With the repercussions of climate change getting worse by the day, it won’t be long before these islands and coastal regions become inhabitable.

On the bright side, the UN HRC’s judgement has paved way for a possible exception or amendment to the refugee law.

Sooner or later, the global community will acknowledge or accommodate one of the most vulnerable populations in today’s time- climate refugees.

If you would like to demand the recognition of climate refugees by the UN, do head over to a petition here!


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