Explainer: UN Human Rights Ruling on Climate Refugees

Canadian refugee policies may need to change to conform to the ruling

Onotoa is a low lying island in Kiribati, Oceania with only 332 household around the central lagoon. As you can see, most of the land mass is underwater. (wiki.commons)

Fires, rising sea levels, and other natural disasters induced by the rapidly changing climate are impacting countries around the world and the people living in them.

A recent ruling by the United Nations has stated that deporting a person to a country where they may be put in danger by the climate crisis is a violation of human rights.

On Jan. 21, the United Nations published its first official case of a refugee attempting to flee their home because of the effects of climate change on his homeland.

Ioane Teitiota is from the Pacific Island country of Kiribati. Teitiota filed a complaint after being deported from New Zealand following his request for lawful permanent residence while he was seeking asylum.

His reasoning for filing the complaint was that his homeland had become uninhabitable due to the effects of climate change and rising sea levels in Kiribati, and that his right to life was therefore being violated. Though a UN committee decided that adequate protections had been implemented in the country, and that Teitiota’s right to life was not being violated, it raised important questions that the UN and its supporting countries need to start considering.

The UN’s news site says the effects of rising sea levels are causing 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.”

This could soon be true for many refugees fleeing their homes because of climate change.

Because this is a new UN declaration, exactly how it will play out in allied UN countries is yet to be determined. However, countries like Canada may have to consider accepting refugees fleeing their homes because of climate change. To do this, the Canadian government will need to find a way to accommodate this new stream of refugees fleeing climate-related crises — a reason for relocation that is bound to grow in the not-so-distant future.

According to the laws which govern Canada’s Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, there are “two classes of eligible refugees who can be resettled from outside of Canada: (1) the ‘Convention Refugee Abroad Class,’ comprising those who meet the definition of ‘refugee’ in the 1951 Refugee Convention, or (2) the ‘Country of Asylum Class,’ which ‘covers those who are outside their home country or the country where they normally live and have been, and continue to be, seriously and personally affected by civil war or armed conflict, or have suffered massive violations of human rights.’”