Position by Human Rights Committee Opens Possibility for Dignified Migration in the Context of Climate Change

School children walking through a flooded road in Kiribati. Photo: IOM 2015 

Released by IOM
This article benefitted from the contribution of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


The views expressed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its recent position related to climate change and migration do not fundamentally change the status quo for those vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; however, they do flag the urgency of developing a concerted response from the international community to provide migration options to people most severely affected by climate change impacts.

The adverse effects of climate change disproportionally affect communities located in highly exposed and vulnerable areas.  Climate change impacts are recognized as a driver of migration, as they undermine livelihoods and threaten the habitability of many vulnerable areas, such as low-lying islands or arid areas. However, migration governance systems are currently not adequately equipped to address cross-border migration related to climate change impacts. 

The Committee reviewed the case of Mr. Ionane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who claimed that the effects of climate change and sea level rise prevented him from returning to his country. Mr. Teitiota sought asylum in New Zealand, but the New Zealand’s authorities rejected his application. The rejection decision was upheld by the courts and the applicant was returned to Kiribati in September 2015. Mr. Teitiota brought the case before the UN Human Rights Committee claiming that, by returning him to Kiribati, New Zealand violated his right to life under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR). The Committee issued its views on 7 January 2020.

In this context, the position adopted by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee represents a landmark decision to advance the protection of people moving in the context of climate change impacts, by recognizing that in the most extreme cases, receiving countries are obligated not to return people back to areas exposed to the most severe impacts of climate change.

Even though the Committee accepted the reasoning of the national courts, the decision is significant for the following reasons:

First, the Committee’s decision highlights that a range of climate-related stressors that prevent people to live with dignity can lead them to move away from harm and claim protection. Sudden-onset events like storms, floods and droughts related to climate change, slow-onset processes like sea level rise, longer term shifts in weather cycles, changes in biomes, and other events can drive cross-border migration of individuals in search of protection from climate-related harm.

Second, the Committee’s decision highlights that affected areas may require the support of the international community. The international community should support vulnerable states to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation efforts to reduce exposure to hazards and increase people’s resilience, with a view to minimizing the risk of disasters and consequently, displacement. It is also important to consider the development of innovative migration options, including using existing legal pathways for migration and developing new migration pathways for people severely affected by climate change impacts.

Third, the Committee concludes that without robust national and international efforts, climate change may expose individuals to violation of their right to life and may create obligations for receiving states not to return people to precarious situations. It also suggests that the Republic of Kiribati, with the assistance of the international community, may consider, in the next decade, taking affirmative measures to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts, protect and if necessary, relocate its population. Such measures would contribute to avoid displacement of people whilst providing temporary or longer-term forms of protection to people who face life-threatening risks because of the impacts of climate change.

In response to these unfolding challenges, several governance frameworks anchored in United Nations values, including the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, propose ways forward that aim to preserve the dignity of individuals and support national, regional and global action. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process through its Task Force on Displacement, have called for robust action to address these challenges.

In 2018 the international community, under the UNFCCC, endorsed recommendations “to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, as appropriate and in accordance with national laws and policies, in the context of climate change, by considering the needs of migrants and displaced persons, communities of origin, transit and destination, and by enhancing opportunities for regular migration pathways, including through labour mobility, consistent with international labour standards, as appropriate” (decision 10/CP.24 recommendations of the Task Force on Displacement para 1(i(vi)). In that respect, the Decision of the Human Rights Committee represents an important development that could help avert, minimize and address displacement and offer safe, regular and dignified migration pathways.

Climate impacts are unfolding more rapidly and with increasingly immediate risks to people and their livelihoods than previously anticipated. The development of appropriate governance mechanisms to address migration driven by impacts of climate change is necessary for a safe and dignified life for those affected, either at home or abroad. 

For more information please visit the IOM Environmental Migration Portal or contact:

Dina Ionesco, IOM Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division dionesco@iom.int
Safa Msehli, IOM Public Information Officer for the Department of Migration Management smsehli@iom.int