A landmark ruling by the United Nations that could pave the way for future climate migrants may force the Canadian government to rethink its conditions around refugees and asylum seekers.
On Jan. 20, the UN Human Rights Committee stated governments must now take into account the climate crisis when considering the deportation of asylum seekers.
Currently, there are no specific provisions for people seeking asylum on the grounds of climate change under Canadian immigration and refugee law.
The non-binding UN ruling involves Ioane Teitiota, from the Pacific nation of Kiribati, who brought a case against New Zealand in 2016 after authorities there denied his claim of asylum as a climate refugee.
The UN committee upheld New Zealand’s decision to deport Teitiota, saying he did not face an immediate risk if returned. But it agreed that environmental degradation and climate change are some of the most pressing threats to the right to life.
Committee expert Yuval Shany said “this ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims.”
Despite the committee’s optimism, Canadian legal experts are pessimistic, saying that accommodating climate migrants would require systematic changes in Canada.
Mitchell Goldberg, former president and co-founder of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said that if Canada wants to be able to “look itself in the mirror,” the government will need to take urgent policy and legislative action in order to account for the “very threatening new reality” of forced migration due to climate change.
Elizabeth May, the former Green Party leader, said the ruling provides the opportunity for Canada and the international community to redefine the meaning of refugee.
“We are going to have climate refugees, and we can’t refuse them based on the fact that there isn’t a political problem in their country,” May said. If migrants “simply can’t live” in their home country because “their homes are underwater” or “persistent drought,” she said it is incumbent on Canada to do something.
Canada’s ‘moral and legal obligation’
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people worldwide had to leave their homes in 2019 because of disasters exacerbated by climate change.
The Global Climate Risk Index, released last year, found that the poorest and least-developed countries, such as Honduras and Myanmar, are generally more adversely affected by climate change than industrialized countries.
In a 2018 report, Canada was identified as the worst of the G20 nations for per capita greenhouse-gas emissions. Combined, the G20 members are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to human-caused climate change.
“Every time the Canadian government provides subsidies to the gas sector, every time it builds another pipeline, we should be thinking of the impact it will have on millions of people around the world living in already precarious situations,” said Goldberg. As a result, “there is a very powerful moral and legal obligation, especially for Canada, to step up the plate to take responsibility for our actions and the impacts we have had on millions people around the world.”
Goldberg said that while the UN ruling was “very encouraging” and “long overdue,” many countries, like Canada, the U.S. and those in the EU, will try and ignore it.
It had been “notoriously hard” to update the UN’s refugee convention, given that the “rich countries of the world” have been against any expansion and have tried to limit its provisions, Goldberg said.
The recent UN ruling could also lead to legal challenges from people whose asylum status may have been previously denied because it did not meet Canadian definitions, he said.
IRCC monitoring climate displacement
In a statement to CBC News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the Canadian government actively monitors the implications of climate change on migration and displacement of people.
“Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our time… Developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, are the hardest hit,” IRCC spokesperson Shannon Ker said.
Canada remains “steadfast in offering protection to [UN] convention refugees,” and in the event of a natural disaster, decisions on refugee claims are taken on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“In the case of people displaced due to a sudden onset weather event or a natural disaster, IRCC has in the past expedited applications already in the system, and has also extended temporary resident visas for those already in Canada.”
However, IRCC did not state if the ruling would impact Canada’s definition around what constitutes an asylum seeker.
Chiara Liguori, policy adviser for Amnesty International, said governments’ tendency to resist redefining refugee definitions is due in part to how difficult it is to identify climate change as a specific reason for displacement.
“The reasons why people move are interlinked, and determining this objectively is hard,” Liguori said. “There is also an issue of political will.”
But she said that the climate crisis will trigger more “human rights impacts on the lives of people,” especially those living in developing countries.
“It is imperative that [nations] reduce emissions as fast as possible in order to keep an increase of global temperatures within 1.5 [Celsius],” Liguori said. “Otherwise, the impacts of climate change will represent serious human rights consequences.”
May said an increase in climate migrants to Canada could be beneficial to rural areas that have experienced depopulation, and could provide a much-needed economic boost.
“It’s not going to happen all at once, but is going to happen soon enough and governments — both federal and provincial — need to think about how we plan ahead and have adequate infrastructure to make this as positive as possible in unhappy circumstances.”