Climate change is an existential threat to humanity and as such, should be included in legislation on asylum seeking.
Despite recent and increasing efforts by the United States and other governments to narrow their interpretations of the refugee definition and to shirk their protection responsibilities, the need to expand the grounds for asylum is becoming increasingly urgent as the consequences of climate change become more pronounced.
A desperate appeal for asylum by a family from a Pacific island may have far-reaching implications for protecting people forcibly displaced by the effects of climate change. It could cause countries around the world to reconsider their laws and policies concerning refugees.
The case involves the Teitiota family, who fled the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati in 2007 and sought asylum in New Zealand in 2013. Ms Teitiota told the New Zealand court that she feared for her children’s health and wellbeing, that crops and coconut trees on the island were dying.
She explained that because of rising sea levels, people were moving from neighbouring atols to Tarawa which led to overcrowding, frequent conflicts between residents and the spread of disease. She shared stories about children getting diarrhoea and even dying because their already scarce drinking water had become contaminated.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court of New Zealand dismissed the case, saying the family did not meet the standards required by the Refugee Convention and deported them in 2015.
That same year, the father of the family filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, an independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. He claimed that New Zealand had violated his right to life under the covenant because the sea level rise had shrunk habitable space in Kiribati, resulting in violent land disputes and environmental degradation.
On January 7, the Committee issued its views, finding the threats to life posed by rising sea levels and other effects of climate change necessitate a broadening of refugee law. “The obligation not to extradite, deport or otherwise transfer pursuant to article 6 of the Covenant,” the committee said, citing its provision on the right to life, “may be broader than the scope of non-refoulement under international refugee law, since it may also require the protection of aliens not entitled to refugee status.”
The principle of non-refoulement is a cornerstone of international refugee law, barring the return of refugees – defined as people with a well-founded fear of being persecuted – to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
The committee noted that Kiribati will become uninhabitable within the next 10 to 15 years because of rising sea levels. Both sudden events, like storms, and slow processes, like salinisation and land degradation, the committee said, “can propel cross-border movement of individuals seeking protection from climate-change related harm thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states.”
Under a “moderate future scenario”, scientists project that sea level rise in the next 30 years will put about 150 million people permanently below the high tide line. Although most of this displacement will not compel people to cross international borders, people living in countries like Kiribati, which are likely to become completely inundated, will have no choice but to seek asylum outside their country.
But Pacific islands are not alone in facing such threats. In landlocked countries like Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe, where populations are heavily reliant on agriculture and livestock, rising temperatures have contributed to flooding, drought, famine and disease that erode not only arable land but also the resilience of populations that have suffered armed conflict and human rights violations.
Whether environmental disasters are the direct cause of displacement or an aggravating factor in combination with violence, inequality, and poor governance, millions of people on the African continent have already been displaced internally or forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries because they consider staying at their homes a threat to their lives.
Because the committee held out hope that the government of Kiribati still has time to intervene to protect its citizens through relocation and other measures, it did not accept the family’s claim that their rights had been violated, saying the risk to their lives was not imminent.
One of the dissenting committee members who ruled on this case, however, wrote that the family would “have no access to safe drinking water, which poses an imminent threat to their lives,” while another said, “It would indeed be counterintuitive to the protection of life, to wait for deaths to be very frequent and considerable; in order to consider the threshold of risk as met.”
While there still may be room to argue whether life-threatening threats are imminent in particular cases, the Human Rights Committee has recognised that fundamental refugee-protection principles need to be broadened now.
This means not only that our common understanding of what it means to be a refugee needs to change, but also that the 173 countries that are party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should ensure their asylum standards and procedures are adapted to protect all who face existential threats if returned to home countries that have become unlivable.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Another boat tragedy off North Africa’s Atlantic Coast stark reminder of perilous sea journeys
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, say the deaths of 47 people who were onboard a boat heading to the Canary Islands from North Africa’s Atlantic coast highlight the urgent need for more support to prevent further tragedies at sea.
The boat left on 3 August carrying 54 people, including three children. After two days at sea, engine failure left passengers stranded without food or water for nearly a fortnight. When located by the Mauritanian coast guard on 16 August, only seven people were alive on board.
Survivors were taken to Mauritania’s northern city of Nouadhibou for medical treatment. Four people in critical condition were transferred to hospital. UNHCR is working to provide assistance and to determine whether any survivors have international protection needs.
The latest tragedy comes just 10 days after another 40 people lost their lives along the same route. It adds to the spiraling number of deaths, as more vessels depart for the Canary Islands. As of January this year, more than 350 people have died, while over 8,000 refugees and migrants have reached Spain using this sea route.
Meanwhile, since October 2020, more than 1,200 people have been rescued off the Mauritanian coast and received medical assistance as part of a first aid programme set up by IOM.
IOM and UNHCR are appealing for more support, to be able to continue their lifesaving interventions, including through screening, medical and psychosocial aid.
“Our top priority is to provide safe and viable alternatives to the dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, as per the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said Maria Stavropoulou, UNHCR’s Representative in Mauritania. “UNHCR is working to increase the identification of those with international protection needs travelling along these routes and provide assistance in the countries that host them.”
IOM’s Chief of Mission in Mauritania, Boubacar Seybou, said the organization was concerned that many rescued at sea end up in administrative detention.
“In accordance with the recommendations included in the Global Compact for Migration, alternatives must also be available to survivors, who have already suffered heavy medical and psychosocial trauma,” Seybou said. “We are working closely with authorities “to accelerate the implementation of new assistance and protection measures, and to strengthen the fight against traffickers and smuggler networks.”
IOM and UNHCR are urging the international community to support efforts to identify and assist those with international protection and other specific needs, to create safe and legal pathways, establish alternatives to detention, and strengthen search and rescue capacity off the coast of Mauritania.
Response capacities stretched with hasty return of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants
Ethiopia – The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is urgently appealing for funds to respond to the needs of 40,000 Ethiopian migrants returning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Over 30,000 have arrived in Ethiopia over the last two weeks, at the rate of over 2,600 people a day. More than 20,400 (68 per cent) are from parts of Tigray and Amhara regions which are in the midst of conflict in Northern Ethiopia that has displaced nearly two million people.
The returns of Ethiopian migrants follow a bilateral agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and KSA.
According to IOM, USD 740,000 is needed to provide assistance for every 10,000 migrants returning. This is for essentials such as medical treatment, supplies for babies and infants such as diapers, clothing, help with finding and tracing family members, and reunifying them or providing alternative care arrangements as appropriate, as well as to respond to protection concerns.
“This sudden upsurge in returns poses a major challenge to our ability to assist the returnees – many of whom require medical and psychosocial assistance, support reuniting with their families, and livelihood options that would help to diminish the appeal of irregular re-migration to KSA and other countries of destination,” says Maureen Achieng, IOM Chief of Mission in Ethiopia.
“Our response is seriously underfunded and barely reaching the needs of returnees in the provision of essential basic and specialized assistance, including for unaccompanied migrant children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and victims of trafficking.”
Many of the migrants will require help to return and reintegrate back into their communities. Reintegration assistance is therefore vital to supporting the returnees psychologically, and to find work and stability, to help them avoid irregular migration, and exploitation by trafficking and smuggling rings.
The returning migrants are among the target population included in the Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021-2024 (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a USD 99 million appeal launched by IOM and 39 partners in March 2021 to address the protection needs, risks and vulnerabilities of migrants along this route. The MRP is underfunded and urgently requires additional resources to carry out its response, including for this target population.
While recognizing the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law, IOM, as part of the United Nations Network on Migration, reaffirms its commitment to keeping everyone safe. It means that all Member States need to ensure that collective expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers must be halted; that protection needs, including international protection, must be individually assessed; and that the rule of law and due process must be observed. It also means prioritizing protection, including every child’s best interest, under the obligations in international law.
IOM provides over 1,300 migrants with emergency shelter and assistance on the Canary Islands
Madrid – As more migrants arrive in the Canary Islands, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has provided shelter, protection services, medical, legal and other types of assistance to 1,361 migrants on Tenerife.
The arrival of more than 23,000 people in the Canary Islands by sea in 2020, particularly in the last three months of the year, strained the reception capacity and COVID-19 has further complicated the response. In November 2020, the Government of Spain announced “Plan Canarias” to renovate and expand the archipelago’s reception facilities to accommodate and assist 7,000 migrants.
Since 26 February this year, IOM has been operating at the Las Canteras Emergency Reception Facility (ERF) on Tenerife to support the Spanish government in managing the site. The EU-funded facility is an open centre which can accommodate as many as 1,100 people.
“Our priority is to support Spain with site management to provide safe and dignified living conditions and tailored services for migrants who have arrived via extremely treacherous journeys to the Canary Islands,” said Maria Jesús Herrera, Head of IOM’s Office in Spain.
Today, some 300 migrants are staying at the facility from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Sudan, The Gambia, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire.
At Las Canteras, IOM provides meals, core relief items, water and sanitation, maintenance, and Multipurpose Cash Assistance. The Organization also offers protection assistance, which includes vulnerability assessments, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), primary health care, legal information and counselling for family reunification or international protection, and assistance with transfers of eligible vulnerable migrants to the mainland.
IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) is also available to migrants who wish to return to their country of origin.
Marouane, a 27-year-old from Morocco, had arrived at the facility on 6 March. One year ago, he risked a harrowing sea journey towards the islands.
“For three days, you hang out with death, you see it. But if you don’t die, then you get there,” he told IOM in May.
To date, IOM has provided legal counselling to more than 780 people seeking asylum, in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. IOM also ensured – through close collaboration with the Spanish authorities – the referral and transfer of some 682 migrants to other specialized centres on the islands and the mainland.
The Organization also works closely with the municipality of La Laguna to engage with neighbourhood associations, the Tenerife council, civil society, citizens and local actors in the interest of transparency, mutual exchange, and social cohesion.
“We consider the people hosted in Las Canteras centre as citizens of La Laguna municipality. We therefore try to collaborate as much as possible so that they also benefit from the activities organized by the City Council,” said José Luis Hernandez, Environment Councillor from the La Laguna City Hall.
Arrivals to the Canary Islands on the Western Africa-Atlantic Route this year have reached 7,309 – more than double the number of arrivals at the same time last year. Some 23,848 migrants have reached Spain irregularly via all land and sea routes so far this year.
The project at Las Canteras,“Supporting the Spanish Authorities in managing an Emergency Reception Facility on the Canary Islands”, is funded by the EU (European Commission, DG Home). The overall management of the ERF is under the coordination of the Site Manager of the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration.
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