In a landmark decision, a United Nations panel has ruled that refugees fleeing the effects of the climate crisis cannot be forced to return home by their adoptive countries.
The judgment – which is the first of its kind – represents a legal "tipping point" and a moment that "opens the doorway" to future protection claims for people whose lives and wellbeing have been threatened due to global heating.
The decision could open the door to a flood of legal claims by displaced people around the world, CNN reports.
The UN's Human Rights Committee was making a judgment on the case of Ioane Teitiota, who applied for protection from New Zealand after claiming his life was at risk in his home country of Kiribati. The Pacific island is at risk of becoming the first country to disappear under rising sea levels.
The committee ruled against Teitiota on the basis that his life was not at imminent risk -- but it also outlined that countries could violate people's international rights if they force them back to countries where climate change poses an immediate threat.
"Without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights," UN Panel said in its ruling.
"What's really important here, and why it's quite a landmark case, is that the committee recognised that without robust action on climate at some point in the future it could well be that governments will, under international human rights law, be prohibited from sending people to places where their life is at risk or where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment," said Prof Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor centre for international refugee law at the University of New South Wales.
"Even though in this particular case there was no violation found, it effectively put governments on notice," he added.
While the judgment is not formally binding on countries, it points to legal obligations that countries have under international law.
However experts say the committee's ruling opens the way for other claims based on the threat to life posed by the climate crisis.
A 2018 study by the World Bank found that 143 million people across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are at risk of becoming climate migrants.