On 20 January 2020, a panel of the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that refugees fleeing from climate crisis cannot be forced to return home by their adoptive countries. This is a landmark decision and could open the doorway to multiple legal claims for protection by displaced people affected by global warming.

This judgement was related to the case of Ioane Teitiota who applied for protection in New Zealand in 2013, claiming his and his family’s lives were at risk in his home country of Kiribati, an island in the Pacific and considered to be the country most at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels, a result of global warming. The committee heard evidence of dangerous levels of overcrowding on the island of South Tarawa, Teitiota’s erstwhile home, where the population was said to have increased from 1,641 in 1947 to 50,000 in 2010 since other islands were becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, leading to increasing violence, social tensions, and lack of resources. The New Zealand courts had rejected Teitiota’s claim for protection.

While the UN panel ruled against Teitiota on the basis that his life was not at imminent risk as he had claimed, it also said that countries could violate people’s international rights if they forced them back to countries where climate change posed an immediate threat and clarified the role and responsibilities of states in such cases. The committee upheld New Zealand’s decision and ruled that while ‘sea level rise is likely to render the republic of Kiribati uninhabitable… the timeframe of 10 to 15 years, as suggested by [Teitiota], could allow for intervening acts by the republic of Kiribati, with the assistance of the international community, to take affirmative measures to protect and, where necessary, relocate its population.’ 

Experts say the committee’s ruling sets a precedent for other claims based on threat to life due to the climate crisis. The committee 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 ensure an individual’s inherent right to life in its ruling.

A 2018 study by the World Bank found that 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America could become climate refugees.