On January 7, 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee for the first time recognized the consequences of the climate crisis as potential reasons for flight. Crucial to this milestone was the case of Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, who had previously sought asylum in New Zealand. Rising sea levels and increasingly difficult living conditions in his homeland were the reasons for his request.

Kiribati is a small, Pacific Island nation in Oceania and is – like many other small island states in the region – particularly affected by climate change due to its low-lying land masses. Kiribati’s territory being increasingly taken over by the sea is just one of the most visible and tragic consequences. The resulting salinization of soil and drinking water makes traditional agriculture difficult, which in turn leads to economic hardships and an increase in crime. A trend which is exacerbated by Kiribati’s growing population being pushed further and further into urban centers such as the capital, South Tarawa. With an area of less than 16 square kilometers, South Tarawa is unable to meet the growing need for jobs, adequate infrastructure, and prospects. Kiribati is not an isolated case either. Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau, as well as other island states in the region, are struggling with similar problems. Melting ice caps, subsequent sea level rise, and floods pose immediate risks to communities living close to coasts or river valleys fed by the Himalayan glacier.

According to forecasts, Kiribati will be completely submerged into the sea by 2070. What will happen to approximately 120,000 Kiribati inhabitants? The government is trying to take measures to enable the population to leave the islands as soon as possible. Areas of the mountainous island nation of Fiji have already been purchased to which people could be evacuated. Since 2008, negotiations have been underway with the Australian and New Zealand governments to make official and organized migration to these countries possible. However, to the misfortune of the I–Kiribatis, the governments have not been able to agree on a clear course of action.

Ioane Teitiota’s asylum application was rejected by the New Zealand government despite several appeals. According to the decision, the situation in Kiribati is not yet precarious enough to endanger Ioane Teitiota’s life and limb to justify granting him asylum. There is still time for the Kiribati government and the international community to address climate change. However, considering that the states most vulnerable to and affected by climate change have contributed the least to it, such reasoning is cynical and outdated. As governments and international organizations are realizing their futile and half-hearted attempts at mitigating climate change, multilateral negotiations have necessarily seen a trend towards adaptation policies. But as the case of the I–Kiribatis shows, individual adaptation strategies – which climate migration should be acknowledged as – have not yet made a substantive step from being empty words on papers.

Climate change induced migration raises many questions for the international legal framework. There is yet to be an adequate definition of a “climate refugees”, as the reasons for leaving their homes often blur with economic incentives. The Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 does not acknowledge environmental reasons for flight in its definition of what constitutes a refugee. Unlike victims of sudden natural disasters, people not being able to economically sustain themselves anymore after their lands have become infertile for agricultural production can hardly claim persecution or prove that their situation is a direct consequence of global warming. However, research into this form of migration is not new and finding a solution is not easy. The term “environmental refugee” has been discussed since the 1980s, but several conceptual problems besides the difficulty in determining the initial push factor have prevented the debate from yielding any substantial results. The risk of overwhelming states’ capacities and their societies’ threshold of acceptance is one of the primary reasons why the definition of a refugee and all its legal implications has not been expanded. Inflating the number of legally recognized refugees by including environmentally motivated migration might thus have repercussions for the protection of the former group.

Furthermore, it is not yet clear which citizenship people fleeing from sinking states will receive or be allowed to retain once their homeland has disappeared or become uninhabitable. According to Article 1 of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, a state is considered such if the following four criteria are met: a permanent population, a defined territory, a functioning government, and the ability to enter into relations with other states. If climate change renders one or more of the criteria impossible to meet, this will also have legal implications for the affected citizens of the state. Stateless people are especially vulnerable to discrimination, human trafficking, and other human rights abuses. It is thus of utmost importance that states prepare a legal and actual infrastructure for a phenomenon that is expected to increase in the near future.

In 2011, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon included environmental refugees in his speech to the United Nations Security Council on the Impact of Climate Change on International Peace and Security while addressing the necessity of dealing with the trend in an adequate manner. In 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 35/20, calling for negotiations to ensure “orderly and regular migration” caused by impacts of climate change. And while Ioane Teitiota’s plight came to nought for him personally, he has sparked a discussion that led the United Nations Human Rights Committee to recognize the consequences of the climate crisis as grounds for flight for the first time in 2020. But a lot of work is still ahead, and climate change is not waiting.


Written by Carina Karničar; Edited by Judith Bauer

Photo credit to: Giacomo Romano