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Climate Change and Asylum Law

April 22, 2021 (8 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, Apr. 22, 2021

"Today, Earth Day, Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, and the University Network for Human Rights released an important White Paper on the issue of climate displacement and its intersection with U.S. immigration laws, including the law of asylum.  The report, Shelter from the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Migration from the Northern Triangle, is both a call to action by the Biden Administration, and a tribute to the adaptability of international refugee law to address a vast array of serious discriminatory harms, including those related to climate change.

Seventy years after its enactment, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees has demonstrated its ability to provide protection to victims of domestic violence, female genital cutting, coercive family planning policies, and violence from third-generation gangs, which function in some areas as de facto governments.  It has provided status to those targeted because of their sexual orientation or sexual identity.  It has served to afford protection to those suffering from physical or mental illnesses or disabilities.

Attention is now turning to those displaced by climate change.  The Biden Administration has issued two Executive Orders devoted to the issue of climate change within days of taking office.  The second of those, issued on February 4, included the topic of “planning for the impact of climate change on migration.”  Section 6 of the order requires the issuance of a report on the topic within 180 days.

To present, the U.S. has responded in some instances to rapid onset climate events such as hurricanes and earthquakes by designating impacted countries for Temporary Protected Status.  One of the interesting points raised in the White Paper involves the ordinarily overlooked issue of displacement caused by slow onset climate events.  These  include desertification, rising sea levels, salinization of farmland, and shifts in precipitation patterns.  The issue lends itself to being addressed through an array of legal responses (such as TPS, Deferred Enforced Departure, humanitarian parole, and even the creation of a new climate visa), and the White Paper explains how each of these legal avenues can be employed to provide protection to those displaced by such events.  But the White Paper’s discussion of the idea of analyzing some forms of climate-related harm under our asylum laws is particularly intriguing.

Development of the intellectual groundwork for climate change-based refugee law analysis is underway at the international level.  As the White Paper notes, in October 2020, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued an important document setting forth “legal considerations regarding claims for international protections made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters.”  This follows the 2020 publication of Matthew Scott’s Climate Change, Disasters, and the Refugee Convention, the first full-length treatise on the topic.

It is important to recognize that asylum is not a cure for all harms that arise in the world.  As in the other examples cited above, asylum responds to serious human rights violations from which the state cannot or will not protect that discriminate based on the fundamental characteristics of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  As one scholar has stated, “international standards generally require that the harm be severe and related to a core right as understood under evolving human rights norms.”1  But “the evaluation of persecution requires a universal but flexible standard, capable of evolving and responding to changing conditions and international norms.”2

In the climate change context, governments undertake projects that impact climate issues such as the availability of water, or the contamination of air or farmland, that may benefit one segment of the population at the expense of another.  Governments also make politicized decisions whether to address slow-onset climate change (which may include decisions regarding whether to regulate non-state industries engaging in business activities with environmental consequences), and in the speed and scope of their relief efforts on behalf of victims of climate-related disasters.  Where these decisions particularly impact a segment of the population in a severe way on account of one of the five statutorily protected grounds, the result may constitute persecution protected under our asylum law.  While the impact of these policies may cause serious harm standing alone, it may alternatively serve as the “last straw” in triggering flight where the climate change factors accelerated the degree of harm already suffered on account of a protected ground such as gender or indigenous status.3

Furthermore, a government’s punishment of outspoken critics of its climate change policies or lack of adequate response to a disaster may constitute persecution on account of a political opinion, as that term is defined for asylum purposes.4

Climate change could also play a more indirect but still important role in asylum determinations.  For example, an asylum applicant who has established a well-founded fear of persecution must also demonstrate that they could not evade persecution through internal relocation within their home country, provided such relocation would be reasonable under all of the circumstances.5   But in its October 2020 Legal Considerations, UNHCR cautions at paragraph 12 that the progressive effect of slow-onset climate change spreading throughout a country may make relocation “neither relevant nor reasonable.”6  Furthermore, where an applicant who has suffered past persecution is shown to have no future fear due to changed conditions, a grant of humanitarian asylum may be merited where the asylum applicant establishes a reasonable possibility of facing “other serious harm” upon return.7  Harm resulting upon return from climate change should arguably constitute “other serious harm” sufficient to meet this standard.8

The White Paper explains that the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are particularly vulnerable to climate change issues, and that the U.S. bears some responsibility for this fact through its high levels of greenhouse emissions and its historical policies in Central America.9  In the 1980s and 90s, the B.I.A. engaged in logical contortions to avoid providing those fleeing civil wars in the Northern Triangle with the asylum protections it willingly extended to those fleeing similar conditions in other parts of the world.10  And more recently, refugees from violence from third-generation gangs and domestic violence in the region have suffered setbacks to refugee protection through similarly bad precedent decisions of the Attorneys General and the B.I.A.11

As the international community addresses the question of refugee determinations involving factors relating to climate change, it is possible for the U.S. to be at the forefront.  Hopefully, today’s White Paper will provide the present administration with useful guidance towards that goal.

This report was coordinated and written by teams from the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC) and the HLS Immigration Project (HIP) at Harvard Law School (collectively “Harvard”) and the University Network for Human Rights, Yale Immigrant Justice Project, and Yale Environmental Law Association (collectively “University Network/Yale”). The coordinators/authors from Harvard were John Willshire Carrera and Deborah Anker.  The coordinators/authors from University Network/Yale were Camila Bustos and Thomas Becker.  I am greatly honored to be listed as a co-author for my work with the Harvard team.

The following fellows participated in researching and drafting the report: Yong Ho Song (Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Fellow at Greater Boston Legal Services) and Fabiola Alvelais (Harvard Law School Henigson Human Rights Fellow and University Network for Human Rights Fellow).

The following Harvard students participated in researching and drafting the report: Rachel Landry (HIRC), Grant Charness (HIRC), Justin Bogda (HIRC), Regina Paparo (HIRC), Mira Nasser (HIRC), Lily Cohen (HIRC), Kira Hessekiel (HIRC), Nicholas Dantzler (HIRC), Shaza Loutfi (HIRC), Ariel Sarandinaki (HIRC), Gabrielle Kim (HIRC), Katie Quigley (HIP), Gina Starfield (HIP).

The following students supervised by and in coordination with University Network for Human Rights participated in researching and drafting the report: Natasha Brunstein (Yale), Alisa White (Yale), Aaron Troncoso (Yale), Rubin Danberg Biggs (Yale), Ram Dolom (Yale), A.J. Hudson (Yale), Rekha Kennedy (Yale), Liz Jacob (Yale), Eleanor Runde (Yale), Eric Eisner (Yale), Juan Luna Leon (Yale), Karen Sung (Yale), Abby Sodie (Wesleyan), Ericka Ekhator (Wesleyan), Gabrielle Ouellette (Wesleyan), Jesse de la Bastide (Wesleyan), Stella Ramsey (Wesleyan), and Luis Martinez (Vanderbilt).

The report was edited by: Sabrineh Ardalan, James Cavallaro, Nancy Kelly, Ruhan Nagra, Gina Starfield, Katie Quigley, and Cindy Zapata.


  1.  Deborah E. Anker, The Law of Asylum in the United States (2020 Ed.) (Thomson Reuters) at § 4.4.

  2. Id. at § 4.3.

  3. White Paper at 35.

  4. Id. at 35.

  5. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(1)(i)(B).

  6. White Paper at 36-37.

  7. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(2)(i)(C).

  8. See White Paper at 33; Matter of L-S-, 25 I&N Dec. 705, 714 (BIA 2012) (holding that “other serious harm” requires no nexus to a protected ground, and can be found in “situations where the claimant could experience severe mental or emotional harm or physical injury.”

  9. White Paper at 4.

  10. See, e.g., Matter of Maldonado-Cruz, 19 I&N Dec. 509 (BIA 1988); and cf., e.g. Matter of Vigil, 19 I&N Dec. 572 (BIA 1987) with Matter of Salim, 18 I&N Dec. 311 (BIA 1982)

  11. See, e.g., Matter of A-B-, 28 I&N Dec. 28 I&N Dec. 199 (A.G. 2021); Matter of A-C-A-A-, 28 I&N Dec. 84 (A.G. 2020); Matter of E-R-A-L-, 27 I&N Dec. 767 (BIA 2020); Matter of L-E-A-, 27 I&N Dec. 581 (A.G. 2019); Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018); Matter of L-E-A-, 27 I&N Dec. 40 (BIA 2017); Matter of M-E-V-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 227 (BIA 2014); Matter of W-G-R-, 26 I&NM Dec. 208 (BIA 2014)."

Copyright 2021 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.  Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City.  Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge and Senior Legal Advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is the founder of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, which was awarded AILA’s 2019 Advocacy Award. Jeffrey is also a past recipient of AILA’s Pro Bono Award. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys, and Central American Legal Assistance.