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UN Declares That Climate Change Refugees Can’t Be Sent Back to Their Home Countries

Considering tens of millions of people in poorer countries could be displaced by climate change in just a few decades, this is a landmark decision.

by Shamani Joshi
23 January 2020, 12:44pm

A woman rows a makeshift raft as girls wade through flood waters at the Laharighat village in Morigaon district in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam. Photo: Anuwar Hazarika / Reuters

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the United Nations (UN) passed a ruling on January 20 that is being hailed as the tipping point for refugees seeking aid in a new country. In a landmark decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that refugees fleeing from the risks and crisis that climate change brings can’t be refused and sent back to their home countries. This judgement is the first of its kind on the subject and will pave the way for refugees across the world to build a stronger case while trying to enter and stay on in an adoptive country.

The ruling comes in light of the case of Ioane Teitiota, who applied for protection from New Zealand saying his life was at risk in his home country of Kiribati, the Pacific island that is projected to become the first country to disappear as sea levels rise indiscriminately. While the committee ruled against Teitiota on the basis that his life was not at risk yet, this pushed them to outline that countries would be in violation of an individual’s international rights if they force them to return to countries where climate crisis does pose a threat to their lives.

However experts argue that the committee’s ruling opens the doors for other claims based on the threat to life posed by the climate crisis considering it ruled that, “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights … thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states”. The committee cited articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which assure an individual of their inherent right to life. "We must be prepared for a large surge of people moving against their will," UN Commissioner Filippo Grandi told Al Jazeera. "I wouldn't venture to talk about specific numbers. It's too speculative, but certainly we're talking about millions here."

This ruling is especially important given that more than 143 million people across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America risk losing their lands because of droughts, crop failure, rising sea levels, floods and wildfires.

While the judgment is not officially binding on UN member countries, it is a part of the legal obligations that these countries have to follow under international law. “What’s really important here, and why it’s quite a landmark case, is that the committee recognised that without robust action on climate at some point in the future it could well be that governments will, under international human rights law, be prohibited from sending people to places where their life is at risk or where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment,” Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales told The Guardian. So as the climate changes for the worse, it's up to humanity to evolve along with it.

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