Steps Toward Climate Refugee Right and Present Condition

Ioane Teitiota

Mr  Ioane Teitiota (pronounced Tess-ee-yo-tah) claimed that his life is in danger, he needs to survive and therefore he applied for the refugee status in New Zealand, unlike any other ground this ground also seems legit; while the New Zealand Supreme Court denied this the merit of his application and ordered his deportation with his whole family back to his native country Kiribati; Surprised? You should be if you know the basic norms of the refugee status and international law but don’t be so surprised yet we have some twist for you. Actually, he claimed the status of a climate refugee.

Let me make it more clear by the definition,  People who have been forced to live their traditional habit, temporarily or permanently, due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment (Natural or triggered by artificial reason) that jeopardized existence or seriously affect the quality of their lives are considered as climate refugee. But unfortunately, this definition is not included in any obligatory treaty or convention.

The given definition fits well with the Mr Teitiota, a middle-aged man born in Republic of Kiribati (Keer-ree-bahss); an island nation compromised of 33 small islands, which is very hard to find in a normal world map. This tiny country is slowly sinking like a boat in the middle of nowhere because of climate change, it is only six feet above the sea level and most of the resident have to find another place to survive. The effects of climate change are already visible, the backyard of Mr Titiotas house is a common place to take place by the high tide of the ocean. Jobs become scarce day by day. Farming is being impossible because of soil sanitization, even drinking water is hard to find.

That is the reason Mr Titiotas left the country to survive with his family. “I am the same people who are fleeing war, those who are afraid of dying,” he said.

This is just one story among millions around the world due to climate change, many countries are facing a serious threat like slow poisoning. Problems are arising one after another, causing chain actions and side effects. low-lying countries like Maldives, Srilanka, Bangladesh, Karibait shall lose their large amount of land under the sea. African countries are already having serious droughts, on the other hand, countries like Nepal, Bhutan and others high counties having their unique problem of ice melting. The climate is acting unpredictably even deserts are having unexpected floods, high waves, soil erosion, tornadoes are being a common problem nowadays. Most of the countries are having frequent cyclones, floods, almost all the world facing the effect of climate change.

Surprisingly even at this point, we have done nothing much. Where the least carbon emission countries are being affected the most. It is estimated that 21.5 Million people have displaced in every year after 2008 and it is dramatically increasing; It is calculated that 720 Million people will fall in extreme poverty for the very same reason. It is very predictable that due to this challenges there will be a shift of socio-economic balance worldwide.  People will do anything and everything to survive.

Surely the situation of countries like Bangladesh will go through massive turmoil, therefore it will affect the basic human rights like, right to life, right to health, right to shelter, socio-economic right, cultural and political right etc. nonetheless the crime rate shall increase and social system will break down. Which will affect the implication of the goal of ICCPR, ICESCR and UDHR. In this situation the world is not progressing enough for upcoming challenges, though, there have been arrangements by the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change and they are arranging and adopting various protocols and action plans, but so far the achievements are too little to talk about, it is not likely to solve the greenhouse gas emission problem soon. At this point refugee status to the displaced person could be a temporary solution Indeed.

It seems international law is awkwardly silent on this matter, on the other hand, the developed countries are already having paranoia towards present immigrants making the progress even harder. The rise of the populist politician like Mr. Trump, Nigel Farage (UK), Marine Le Pen (French) is a clear indication the global north want their culture to be protected and the immigrants are not welcomed.  They have their reasons though, but the visible conflict is already on the horizon. So easy solution by a warm welcome is not the educated guess at list not very soon. Moreover, the superpower like America has pulled it out from COP21 and denying their duties to the climate change. However, the good sign is also there, most of the countries have acknowledged the fact of Global warming and has agreed to take positive measures. It might be a long way to go but the good thing is that the hope is there for us.

Some scholar suggested adopting a new protocol to the existing 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“UN Convention”). It has been the guiding framework controlling refugee migration in many countries. The UN Convention created and operates under a specific definition of the term “refugee.” Under this Convention, in order to qualify as a refugee, a person must:

(1) Demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion;

(2) Be outside the country of former habitual residence;

(3) And, be unable or, due to fear unwilling, to return to that country.

Here no provision is there for climate refugee but some wish it should be there, but it was hardly possible to foresee this remote relation of refugee to the climate. So the other argues that it would not be wise to adopt a new protocol or add to the existing refugee convention as the problem itself is inherently different except the necessity of migration in a large scale and it should be dealt with reasonable care.

But another international document, namely, United Nations Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Person 1998 show us some light of hope. An internally displaced person (IDP) are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border. In this Instrument, we have a nice guideline for human treatment but the problem is IDP’s stays in the territory of the country from whom they are internally displaced and this instrument has no binding force.

Another Initiative, known as Nansen Initiative has drawn the attention of the world as well. 110 countries have endorsed that initiative which was an agenda for the protection of the cross-border disputed person in the context of disaster and climate change, which has taken place on 12 and 13th October 2015 in Geneva.

But the most fruitful was the Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries 1994. Article 1 of this convention as follows:

For the purposes of this present Convention, a refugee means:

Any person who is outside the country of his nationality or outside his habitual place of residence in case of not having a nationality and owing to well-grounded fear of being persecuted on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of or return to such country.

Any person who unwillingly takes refuge in a country other than his country of origin or his habitual place of residence because of sustained aggression against, occupation and foreign domination of such country or because of the occurrence of natural disasters or grave events resulting in major disruption of public order in the whole country or any part thereof.

But this convention is marked as a paradox by international scholars for its real application issues, and the Convention has Not Ratified by the parties. [More clear information is not found on the Internet]

Lastly, Maldives is buying land in Australia and Kiribati is buying land in Fiji to survive form the bite of climate change, this buying and surviving is not easy but these countries deserve the appreciation for helping each other and finding out new ways of hope.

These efforts are not enough to support the challenge, upcoming for climate change, but at list, these initiatives created awareness and initiate new light of hope among us, one day like other laws, we may hope the climate refugees shall have their own legal ground to claim their right to life from those who are most responsible for the situation. We know it would not be easy but from be beginning of human civilization they have solved almost all the challenges the faced with innovation, creativity and brave heart. We will solve this issue too.

Download PDF: Steps toward climate refugee right and present condition.pdf

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Rayhanul Islam

Advocate Rayhanul Islam is the founder and Editor in Chief of Law Help BD. He is also a researcher. Critical thinking is his main focus. He is on a quest to bring positive change to the legal sector of Bangladesh. He promotes legal knowledge and human rights concept to the root level. e-mail: [email protected]

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