Climate Change and Refugees

Climate Change and Refugees

Two months ago, the world’s first claimant seeking refugee status on the basis of climate change was deported.

Ioane Teitiota first made the claim four years ago in New Zealand. He claimed that his family and himself were in danger living on Kiribati from various climatic changes, such as rising sea levels, pollution of fresh water and possible cyclones.

However, his claim was officially denied due to the court’s ruling that though his native island country Kiribati was facing climate change challenges, he did not fit the definition of a refugee who would face persecution should he return home. Furthermore, that there was no evidence of the government of Kiribati neglecting the duty to protect citizens from climate change and the impacts of climate change on the nation.

Impact of Climate Change on Global Populations

There is no doubt that climate change is happening. Climate change has been evident on the planet with recent changes such as the opening of the Artic passageway to an increase in natural disasters. Colombia was recently deemed to have the highest rate of natural disasters in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Where does this leave nations with populations in direct danger of climate changes?

Unfortunately, the term “climate refugees” is not internationally recognized formally. The idea of climate change is not considered for those seeking refuge. This is because the United Nations refugee convention does not consider protection to refugees due to climate change as a reason for nations to grant asylum.

Along with the term climate refugee, there is also environmental refugee, which is an umbrella term, and climate change refugees are categorized under this term. Environmental refugees refer to those who leave their homes due to environmental factors such as natural disasters. Yet, the term environmental refugee is also not formally recognized internationally.

Even though the larger international community does not recognize these two terms as basis for reasons to grant potential asylum-seekers refugee status, Finland and Sweden have to some extent.

They are the only two countries in the world who do include in their state policies regarding immigration and refugees, the protection against environmental factors. Nevertheless, there have been some criticisms regarding the application of such policies in these two countries.

Denmark has also moved forward in accepting refugees based on environmental factors despite lack of legislation within this nation regarding this type of reason to claim asylum. In 2001, Denmark granted legal status to 31 Afghans from Afghanistan due to the drought.

The Future?

The two words climate change and refugees have recently surfaced in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s newly formed cabinet. He renamed Citizenship and Immigration Canada to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and Environment was rebranded as Environment and Climate Change. The two words are clearly signalling an importance for the future and even for Canada.

Maybe it is also time for the international community and the United Nations to move forward to include climate change and environment as causes for granting refugee status for those seeking protection.

About Sukhpal Kaur Sangha

Sukhpal is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto. Graduating with distinction, her Honours Bachelor of Arts degree focused on a double major in History and Political Science with a minor in Anthropology. She has spent much of her time devoted to volunteering in the community and the world around her. Her various passions resulted in her receiving the University of Toronto Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award. She currently volunteers on a Young Leaders Council in her community. Her passions include global history, Latin America, security, intelligence, international issues and development. She welcomes any questions or comments. Email: sukhpal.sangha25@gmail.com