Climate Refugees: The Case of Ioane Teitiota and Gaps in International Law

Angela Tan is a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Foreign Service,
majoring in International Politics. She serves as a Blog Editor on the GUULR staff.

Although climate change is often described as a slow-onset process with effects in the distant future, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati has already started to see its consequences such as fresh water scarcity, decrease in rainfall, contaminated water supply, decline in fish population, erosion of the coastline, and devastating flooding of villages.[1] The elevation of the country averages six feet above sea level, and it is one of the most vulnerable states to rising oceans due to climate change.[2] It is these conditions that motivated people like Ioane Teitiota to migrate from his home country of Kiribati to New Zealand. While working in New Zealand, Teitiota unintentionally overstayed his work visa and needed a renewal, but his case ended up testing the limits of international law for refugees, and revealing gaps in the system designed to protect the most vulnerable.

In Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Teitiota requested asylum as a “climate change refugee,” citing the effects of climate change in his home country as endangering the lives of both himself and his family. If New Zealand accepted his proposition, climate change refugee status would entitle Teitiota to all protections listed under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, the New Zealand court rejected his claim, stating it “fell short of 1951 Refugee Convention legal criteria because he was unable to show that by returning to Kiribati, he would suffer ‘a sustained and systematic violation of his basic human rights such as right to life . . . or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing.”[3]

 According to existing international law, the New Zealand court made no error. The 1951 convention defined a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[4] This definition was designed to protect individuals fleeing from an imminent threat or danger to their life, but climate change presents a new difficulty. Its consequences may be gradual, but could be devastating for entire countries like Kiribati, which is estimated to become inhabitable due to rising sea levels by the end of the century.[5]

Kiribati is not alone in this situation, and the problem is likely to worsen in the future. Between 2008 and 2014, climate-related natural disasters displaced up to 184.4 million people, and 19.3 million were displaced in 2014 alone.[6] By 2050, it is projected that approximately 200 million to 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change,[7] with the majority of those affected from low-lying areas in East, Southeast, and South Asia.[8]

 So what are the obstacles to expanding the definition of a refugee? One is that there is no consensus on what exactly “climate-induced migration” is. Experts differ in their opinions, and possible definitions include “(1) intensified sudden-onset natural disasters, e.g., storms; (2) slow-onset effects on livelihoods, e.g., chronic drought; (3) regions becoming uninhabitable or incapable of supporting livelihoods, e.g., submerging island states; (4) regions designated environmental high-risk zones; and (5) conflict stemming from resource-scarcity fueled by climate change.”[9] Another difficulty is that even though the displaced are permanently forced from their homes due to environmental reasons, the term refugee may not be entirely appropriate to describe their situation. Historically, the term applied to migrants who travelled across state borders for protection, and many examples of environmental displacement occur within state lines. However, with the climate crisis worsening, it is increasingly likely that there will be fewer options for the displaced in their home countries.

Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment exposed gaps in the global system to protect refugees and questioned if the definition of refugee created in 1951 is still sufficient to protect victims of a new 21st century crisis: climate change. The effects of climate change put the most vulnerable even more at risk since its consequences are predicted to “slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps.”[10] While the climate crisis may not currently be an imminent danger to those in vulnerable countries, it may be too late by the time it is, and it is worth thinking about how international law will need to change to accommodate people looking for a new home.


[1] Kenneth R. Weiss & Birgit Krippner, Exile by Another Name, Foreign Policy 48–56, 50 (2015).

[2] Id. at 50.

[3] Alice Thomas, Protecting People Displaced by Weather-Related Disasters and Climate Change: Experience from the Field, 15 Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 803–832, 811 (2014).

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR, 3, https://www.unhcr.org/protection/basic/3b66c2aa10/convention-protocol-relating-status-refugees.html.

[5] Climate Change and the Disappearing Islands of Kiribati, Human Rights Watch (June 15, 2018 2:41PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/15/interview-climate-change-and-disappearing-islands-kiribati.

[6] Rina Kuusipalo, Exiled by Emissions—Climate Change Related Displacement and Migration in International Law: Gaps in Global Governance and the Role of the UN Climate Convention, 18 Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 614–647, 618–619 (2017).

[7] Id. at 618.

[8] Id. at 619.

[9] Kuusipalo, supra note 6, at 619.

[10] Id. at 622.

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