What Does It Mean to Be a Climate Refugee?

What Does It Mean to Be a Climate Refugee?

What Does It Mean to Be a Climate Refugee?

A recent ruling opens the door to new types of protected status.


Climate change is already forcing people to flee their communities. Some relocate within their countries, becoming displaced as they seek drier, higher, cooler, safer ground. The unluckiest climate migrants have no choice but to go abroad, and the worst-off among them have no job or relatives to help them do so legally.

That was the predicament Ioane Teitiota faced when the rising Pacific Ocean began to subsume his home on the island nation of Kiribati. So in 2007 he moved to New Zealand with his wife, where they stayed for five years without a visa and had three children, who are not eligible for Kiwi citizenship.

You could call what the couple did breaking the law—but with storm surges demolishing housing and ruining crops in Kiribati, you could also call it staying alive. “I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me,” Teitiota told the BBC.

In 2012, Teitiota’s visa expired. That’s when he began his journey to become the world’s first formally recognized climate refugee. He applied for refugee status in New Zealand and argued that he would face enormous hardship and imminent death, not unlike a persecuted minority, should he be sent home. His bid was rejected by several New Zealand courts, so he appealed his case until it reached the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which decides whether countries have violated international humanitarian law.

In early January the committee ruled against his appeal—with some important caveats. Teitiota, the committee decided, did not face unique and imminent danger by returning home. While its decision acknowledged the ghastly living conditions he described—water shortages, crop failures, and a systemic breakdown of island infrastructure, it noted that he would not starve, drown, or face extraordinary hardship. His claim for protected status under the established covenant would not stand.

But the judges didn’t rule out a scenario in which deteriorating environmental conditions could make someone eligible for protected status under the Refugee Convention. In such a situation, should an applicant’s case be found legitimate, they would deem it against international law to send the person back to his or her home country.

This is a frustrating response for all the questions it doesn’t answer. What exactly does it mean to be a climate refugee or, indeed, any kind of refugee when so many push factors in migration—from low wages to inadequate housing and health care—are intertwined and interdependent with the state of the natural world? Where do you draw the line?

However, the UN judgment acknowledges that climate refugees are a real thing and that even if Teitiota didn’t fit the exact criteria, there are likely many who could—or soon will.

It also raises another, more difficult question: Who cares what the United Nations thinks? The world’s most powerful countries, including the US, have flouted established norms, treaties, and conventions in favor of their own version of what’s right—America first, China first, India first, Brazil first, and so on.

Another case, one concerning the stateless Rohingya, illustrates how well intentioned and agonizingly toothless an international tribunal can be. In a case filed with the International Court of Justice last year, the Republic of the Gambia, a majority-Muslim African nation, accused the Southeast Asian state of Myanmar of inadequately protecting its Rohingya Muslim minority. Observers hailed the filing as an act of Global South solidarity, and in January the court ordered Myanmar to take legal measures to ensure the Rohingya’s safety. (This all took place after the military killed, injured, and drove out hundreds of thousands of them.)

What the court did not do was compel Myanmar to cooperate with a full investigation; nor did it rule on whether the army committed genocide. It simply asked Myanmar—which has demonstrated no goodwill in this area—to play nice. Gambia is not going to invade (liberate?) Myanmar. And who’s going to back up Gambia on the diplomatic stage?

In theory, other UN bodies like the Security Council could impose sanctions. But diplomatically, that often winds up being a nonstarter: What government wants to give another country a hard time about things that happen inside its borders? If Myanmar complies, it is because it has been pressured into doing so by its allies. But shame—particularly among world powers—is losing its coercive force. It’s tempting to bemoan the deterioration of the so-called liberal world order. For a time, many nations felt more pressure to adhere to certain norms for fear of being marginalized or seen as rogues. Those days are over. But that’s not an argument for going back to the days of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who, for all their lip service to human rights and international cooperation, believed the best way forward was through neoimperialist policies and corporate social responsibility.

Instead of succumbing to nostalgia, we should vote nationalists out of office and back political candidates who pledge to take international commitments seriously. That means creating consequences—electoral, personal, reputational—for those who renege on their promises to humans and the climate. And it means dreaming of new ways to ensure that ordinary people and their environment enjoy basic protections, for example by issuing special visas for people from flooding countries and installing (supranationally or country by country) an automatic seizure of the assets of carbon emitters.

At the precise moment we desperately need binding rules on carbon emissions, human rights abuses, and labor standards, we’re confronted with intransigent nationalists who care more about sovereignty than planetary doom. Saying no to nationalism and bordered, cloistered thinking has never been more important.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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