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Climate refugees cannot be forced back home

In a landmark decision, the UN Human Rights Committee has found it is unlawful for governments to send people back to countries where climate change impacts expose people to life-threatening risks or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It has taken 25 years of case law to get to this point.

The case concerns Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific. He said the effects of climate change and sea-level rise forced him to move to New Zealand: life at home was increasingly precarious as a result of overcrowding, erosion, inundation and insufficient fresh water. Claiming to be the world’s first climate change refugee, he received global attention in 2015 when New Zealand rejected his application for protection. He then argued before the UN Human Rights Committee that by deporting him, New Zealand had violated his right to life.

A homeowner in Kiribati rebuilds a sea wall to protect his house on the island of Tarawa.

A homeowner in Kiribati rebuilds a sea wall to protect his house on the island of Tarawa.Credit:Justin McManus

The committee upheld the reasoning of the New Zealand immigration tribunal and the courts, which was that in his particular case, it was safe for him to return to Kiribati. The situation there was not yet so dire that Teitiota and his family faced an imminent risk to their lives.

Significantly, though, the committee found that “without robust national and international efforts”, the effects of climate change may expose people to life-threatening risks or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, “thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states”. In other words, countries would be prohibited from sending people back to these conditions, in the same way it is unlawful for them to return refugees to persecution.

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