The Legal Limbo Of Climate Migrants

The number of climate migrants is rising, whereas Europe and Italy are not addressing this critical issue properly.

Climate Migrants Italy
Fishing in Kiribati” by AusAID, edited and licensed under CC BY 2.0

The number of climate migrants is rising, whereas Europe and Italy are not addressing this critical issue properly

By Alessandra Tosi

Last year, Sea-Watch captain Rackete sparked a debate on ‘climate migrants’, explaining that this is an often-ignored group of migrants with whom Italy and Europe will have to deal sooner than we think.

The status of the climate, or environmental, migrant is not specifically defined at an international legal level. For this reason, there is currently a debate amongst academic and media on whether to define those people as migrants or refugees. Actually, using the word “refugee” is not exactly correct, as to date there is no real legal status for those who are forced to leave their country because of climate change. Therefore, the more generic term “climate migrant” seems to be preferred. Quite recently, however, a UN official statement on a legal case concerning a climate migrant might change this definition.

Ioane Teitiota, a citizen of Kiribati, which is a country in the central Pacific Ocean threatened by rising sea levels, claimed for asylum in New Zealand in 2013, stating that his life and that of his family were at risk. However, Teitiota was deported from New Zealand in 2015, a decision that made it clear the fact that climate migrants do not have the same rights as other refugees, who are granted protection and cannot be deported from the hosting country.

After Mr. Teitiota’s appeal, the UN Human Rights Committee confirmed New Zealand’s decision, stating that there was time for the Republic of Kiribati and the international community to take positive action and help the local population. However, the Committee unprecedentedly stated that the future effects of climate change, already evident in some countries, might mean that this decision of the New Zealand court could be considered a violation of human rights in the future.

This ruling shows how backward international law is regarding the consequences of climate change for local populations, as well as the ambiguity of the Human Rights Committee statement, which, as a matter of fact, confirmed New Zealand’s decision.

Now, an obvious question springs to mind: what does this case have to do with Italy? If one looks at the data on environmental migration, it becomes apparent that the number of people forced to flee because of climate-related disasters is rising, whereas most European policies and legislations, among which Italy’s, are not addressing this critical issue properly.

For example, climate change is displacing a large number of African citizens, as reflected in trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. UN forecasts estimate that there could be anywhere between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050.  These numbers should be a serious concern for European policymakers.

At present, climate migrants reaching European shores are treated as economic migrants, resulting in barriers to entering Europe legally. This means that they might recur to smugglers to reach Europe, hence Italy, and we all know what this means. We have been through a migration crisis before, and it was a crisis for the institutions as well as for the individuals, some of whom had to live in inhumane conditions during and after their travel to Europe.

No one needs to experience a similar situation in such a moment of instability. This is especially true for Italy and the which have changed the legal and political landscape regarding migration and asylum in particular, as Italics Magazine had already discussed in this article. Without a clear and well-structured system of reception, and with a confuse legal procedure, Italy is unlikely to be able to properly tackle the needs of climate migrants.

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