The U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled for the first time Tuesday that people fleeing the effects of climate change may be entitled to asylum.
The ruling came as the Geneva-based committee weighed in on the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati who was denied asylum in New Zealand in 2015.
Though the committee dismissed Teitota’s case and ruled that his deportation was legal, it found that similar cases could require states to grant asylum under the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“This ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims,” said Yuval Shany, a member of the committee.
In its ruling, the committee found that climate change is one of the most “pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.”
A growing body of research has indicated that the effects of climate change are already leading to increased migration levels and experts fear that massive, destabilizing refugee crises could be one of the most dire consequences of the phenomenon.
A 2019 report from the Global Peace Index estimated that climate change will displace more than 140 million people globally by 2050.
Teitiota had argued that Kiribati is becoming increasingly uninhabitable as the island’s supply of freshwater has dwindled and land disputes have grown violent as the ocean levels rise.
Though the rights committee dismissed his asylum case, the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has acknowledged the link between climate and migration.
“Some families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change, which has forced them to leave their homes in search of a new beginning,” the agency has found.
Though poorer, developing nations have contributed the least to climate change, people in the Global South are the most likely to be affected by climate-related disasters.
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