The First Acknowledged Climate Change Refugee?

Adrian-Nicușor POPESCU*

Abstract: Climate change and, in particular, sea-level rise mostly affect the coasts of the low-lying island states from the Pacific Ocean, creating the premises for a future humanitarian crisis, because the affected population will have to be relocated to other territories. What should be done for the protection of the environmentally displaced persons? Could States agree to grant them the equivalent protection guaranteed to a refugee? The recent case of a national from the Republic of Kiribati, who searches refugee status in New Zealand after his homeland risks to be submerged, has brought us to the conclusion that sea-level rise could not be ignored anymore. The case was clearly a great opportunity for the acknowledgement of the “climate change refugee” status and showed that, in the future, we may witness a wave of migrants whose right to life is endangered by sea-level rise. Since complementing the legal definition of the refugee or creating new legal tools would be burdensome, we analysed the human rights perspective, which could be an appropriate alternative for enhancing the protection of the individuals affected by sea-level rise.

Key-words: climate change, refugee, sea-level rise, human rights.

* PhD candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Bucharest. E-mail: The opinions expressed in this paper are solely the author’s and do not engage the institution he belongs to.

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