Iaone Teitiota is a man facing the harsh reality that his country may literally become submerged underwater during his lifetime or that of his children. He is from Kiribati, a nation consisting of small islands in the central tropical Pacific Ocean that is home to approximately 100,000 people. Scientists expect that Kiribati will either be partially or completely submerged within the next 50 to 100 years. And Kiribati is not even expected to go first; the Maldives is the world’s lowest country, eight feet above sea level at its highest point.
Teitiota applied for asylum in New Zealand on the grounds that his family does not have a future in a country that will soon be underwater. Teitiota recently lost his appeal for asylum and is deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of New Zealand. The sobering fact is that the number of climate refugees is expected to dramatically increase over the course of the next century, and there is currently no framework in place to deal with them.
Climate change is expected to displace approximately 250 million people by 2050, according to the government of Canada. This includes situations ranging from the destruction of individuals' homes, as is likely to happen in the case of the people of Kiribati, to the experiences of those whose current living places will be affected by climate change to such an extent that they will no longer have access to food or sources of water.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants asylum protection to those suffering persecution, stating, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Under Article 15 of the Universal Declaration, "Everyone has the right to a nationality." The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees protect refugees who are victims of actual or potential persecution. In particular, a refugee, as defined in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, is a person who is outside of his or her country of nationality or habitual residence and has a well-founded fear of persecution owing to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The persecution must be official or officially sanctioned, meaning that the government is carrying out the persecution or is unable or unwilling to stop it. Just as the eleventh century English and Danish king Canute was unable to stop the tides, the governments of Kiribati and other low-lying countries have been unable to stop the rising of the seas. Yet, despite the inability of the government of Kiribati to stop the likely impending destruction of the country, there does not appear to be anything that fits the definition of persecution that would entitle asylum-seekers like Teitiota to win their asylum cases. Moreover, climate change is likely to leave many individuals stateless, their right to a nationality unprotected.
Assuming climate change continues unabated, something will need to be done for those who will no longer have habitable countries in the foreseeable future. Many affected people will be unable to move to other parts of their country, as entire nations will be underwater. There are currently no systems in place to deal with climate refugees and any country that starts to take them in will have to worry about opening up a floodgate of claims. This is a complex issue without any obvious solutions. The government of Canada, in its February 2013 report entitled “Climate Change and Forced Migration: Canada’s Role,” mentioned the possibility of taking in environmental refugees at a future point. However, neither Canada nor any other country has yet taken steps to turn that talk into action. As a result, the possibility of asylum is currently remote for people such as Teitiota, who must live with the fear that they face a future without a country.