The United Nations Human Rights Committee has determined that countries cannot deport people who have sought asylum due to climate-related threats.
The historic ruling marks the first decision by a UN human rights treaty body based on a complaint filed by an individual seeking protection from the effects of climate change.
Ioane Teitota from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati lodged the complaint in 2015 after being deported from New Zealand when his asylum application was denied.
Teitota argued that 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.
While the UN Committee determined that Teitota’s right to life had not been violated as sufficient protection measures had been implemented in Kiribati, 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.
The ruling could pose a problem for countries like the United States, which is already trying to stem the flow of migrants from South America – a region suffering various impacts as a result of climate change. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, there is a water shortage sparked by pollution, climate change and deforestation. Elsewhere, rising temperatures and drought are causing crop shortages. In addition to the direct impacts, climate change can also cause violent unrest as people protest against rationing and political action, or lack thereof.
President Trump downplayed the climate change crisis when speaking at Davos 2020 this week, calling scientists who present evidence of global warming and other aspects of climate change as “prophets of doom”. While it is sensible to present a calm and orderly front as problems are rarely solved in panic, swift and correct action must now be taken on a global front. The Trump administration should not make the mistake of turning a blind eye to climate disasters happening elsewhere in the world. If it does, those disasters will only exacerbate the migrant influx at the southern border.