In what’s likely an international first, a French court overturned a man’s deportation order after ruling pollution would gravely aggravate his asthma and potentially kill him if he was sent back to Bangladesh.
Several experts told VICE World News it’s likely the first case in the world where someone forced out of their home because of poor environmental conditions has won the right to settle in a new country, with pollution playing a significant role in the decision.
“Based on my knowledge, it’s the first time this kind of argument has been used,” the unnamed 40-year-old’s lawyer, Ludovic Rivière, told VICE World News through a translator.
The court decision acknowledged the man’s inability to access life-saving asthma medications in Bangladesh as well as his family history of respiratory disease—the man’s father died at 54 of an asthma attack—as reasons to reject deportation. The poor air quality in Bangladesh was also listed as a factor that would put the man at risk of dying from asthma.
“That’s the main thing,” Rivière said. “That pollution is bad enough that it’s lethal to people. The medication not being available is actually secondary to the problem.”
Rivière said his client first left Bangladesh for political reasons in 2011. The man had originally settled in Tollhouse, France, where he worked as a waiter, as reported by the Guardian. According to the court decision, the man was granted temporary residence in 2015, not amnesty, after arguing he had to remain in France to access adequate medical care for respiratory illness,
Then in 2017, doctors who work with immigration officials said the man could return home safely, but a lower court in Toulouse overturned the resulting deportation order, only citing the inability to access life-saving medication in Bangladesh, Rivière said.
The recent decision, handed down by Bordeaux Administrative Court of Appeal last month, went a step further by considering pollution, he said.
The World Health Organization listed poor ambient and household air quality in Bangladesh as major risk factors in two-thirds of all deaths in 2016. Bangladesh’s air quality also ranks 179 out of 180 countries total, according to Yale and Columbia’s Environmental Performance Index.
It could set a precedent for how similar cases will be handled in France, Rivière said. Thomas Burelli, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said lawyers around the world can also use the case as a map for making similar arguments.
“It’s really good news,” Burelli told VICE World News. “The way it was argued...it saved his life; the pollution profile for Bangladesh is really awful.”
Burelli said that while this is the first case where a court has accepted environmental concerns as a reason to side with a displaced person, it’s not the first case to suggest courts can and should consider environmental issues, climate change, or disasters as legitimate reasons to migrate.
In 2015, New Zealand’s Supreme Court did not side with Ioane Teitiota, who said he wanted to move to the country because his homeland, Kiribati, was “suffering the effects of climate change” of rising sea levels.
The court decided Teitiota would not face imminent harm if he returned to Kiribati, but said that “did not mean that environmental degradation resulting from climate change or other natural disasters could never create a pathway into the Refugee Convention or protected person jurisdiction.”
Several experts said it’s important to distinguish between climate refugees, which refer to people who leave their homes solely because of climate change, and environmental displacement, a broader category in which the environment, pollution, and disasters are some but not necessarily all of the factors pushing someone out of their home. They said they expect more and more people displaced by environmental, natural, and climate disasters to turn to immigration and refugee law as a way to seek redress.
“Environmental events already outstrip violence and conflict as reasons people are displaced,” said Ama Francis, a climate law fellow with Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. She said international legal frameworks are slowly adapting as well.
VICE News previously reported how climate change will create 1.5 million migrants—and no one knows where they’ll go; under international law, no country is required to welcome climate refugees. But the UN Refugee Agency does clarify that refugee laws have an important role to play in supporting people who are fleeing the deadliest effects of the climate crisis.
Francis said economies in countries with large aging populations benefit from migrants entering the workforce, a widely supported argument.
And because the worst effects of the climate crisis were ultimately caused by developed, industrialized countries, Burelli said, they need to take responsibility. He added that many countries that boast about shrinking their carbon footprint are still culpable for ongoing emissions.
“Europe and North America love to say, ‘We’ve improved so much and decreased emissions,’ but one way to do that is to de-localize your pollution,” Burelli said. That means, countries that import products from abroad—anything from clothes to furniture—and don’t have their own manufacturing plants should also be held responsible for emissions coming out of Bangladesh and China, where many products are made.
“People need to be asking, ‘Why is pollution happening?’” Burelli said.
Burelli said countries need to prepare for more displaced people.
“Countries have a responsibility,” he said. “You don't send back someone if you know their life is threatened; you don't do that. Environmental issues and impact have to be included in the future.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.