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An in-depth analysis of some topics of special interest for pluralism

The protection of climate migrants in Italy

The protection of climate migrants in Italy

The migration phenomenon – which is of great interest in the field of pluralism studies, as one of the main causes of “diversity” in our societies – appears to be increasingly influenced by climate change, the last of the countless self-destructive behaviours of humankind. The more and more prohibitive living conditions of many “developing countries” – plagued by droughts, floods, desertification, cyclones, etc. – are driving their populations to seek refuge in the so-called “first world countries”, which are also primarily responsible for the emissions that are causing climate change and its dramatic consequences.


Therefore, also in order to make these countries fully responsible, the political and judicial debate on the legal protection to be granted to this new category of migrants – who can be qualified as “climate migrants” – is becoming more and more intense.


First of all, looking at the “law of the Charters”, which means the various legal acts produced at international, supranational and national levels, “climate migrants” are never explicitly taken into consideration. Hence, there is a substantial obstacle to the recognition in their favor of the traditional protection instruments, especially those belonging to the international and European systems, such as the refugee status (1951 Geneva Convention; in Italy, Legislative Decree no. 251/2007) and the subsidiary protection status (Directives no. 2004/83/EC and 2011/95/EU; in Italy, Legislative Decree no. 251/2007). In both cases, the legally relevant causes for fleeing from the country of origin appear to be directly attributable to the conduct of (organized groups of) individuals, as demonstrated by the possible actors of persecution (the State of origin, or parties or organizations controlling a portion of its territory), as well as by the causes and nature of the acts of persecution (motivated by racial, religious, political reasons and capable of taking the form of torture, inhuman treatment, death sentences and serious threats to life).


On the other hand, the need to grant some form of protection for climate migrants has found clear manifestations in the “law of the Courts”, with judges tracing a clear interpretive path to recognise – in the existing legislation – means of protection for those fleeing the effects of climate change.


An essential first step is taken at the international law level, with the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee Teitiota vs. New Zealand, where the panel affirm that climate change can give rise to events that compromise access to essential goods and services – such as food, water, housing, etc. – and affect the right of each individual to live in dignity. Against this background, the Committee affirmed the principle of non-refoulement of the migrant, who must be admitted to the country where he/she has applied for protection. On the other hand, the College, while acknowledging the principle of non-refoulement, did not give an opinion on the actual legal status to be granted to the applicant for protection, basically leaving the issue to the national systems and, at the same time, confirming the above-mentioned non-eligibility of climate migrants for international protection (which means, the Geneva Convention refugee status).


The direction indicated by the UN Human Rights Committee is clearly reflected in the Italian jurisprudence, whose push towards the recognition of a form of protection for climate migrants has had to deal with a national discipline on the right of asylum that, in recent years, has undergone substantial changes. Indeed, the initial orientation that positively assessed the eligibility of climatic migrants for “humanitarian protection” – an instrument created by the Italian legislator, operating in respect of asylum seekers when the conditions for refugee status and subsidiary protection did not exist, but protection should be granted in compliance with the constitutional or international obligations of the State (art. 5, par. 6, Legislative Decree no. 196/2003) – has suffered a setback with the abolition of this form of protection, by the Legislative Decree No. 113/2018. New opportunities have been opened by Law no. 173/2020 which, in establishing the new discipline of the so-called “special protection”, once again emphasizes the need to comply with the constitutional or international obligations of the State.


This instrument is thus placed at the basis of Order No. 5022/2021 of the Court of Cassation, whose judges affirmed the need to grant the special protection whenever the socio-environmental context of origin of the migrant is so degraded as to exclude dignified living conditions or, in other words, to reduce to such an extent his/her rights to life, liberty and self-determination that they fall below the threshold of their essential and inalienable core.


This ruling, although crucial, has not put to rest all the doubts that characterize a matter whose uncertainties result from the absence of regulatory provisions that explicitly recognize the figure of climate migrants, whose protection remains mainly anchored to the interpretative choices of the Courts. In the last year, therefore, there have been several rulings which have deviated from the indications of the Cassation Court, denying protection to climatic migrants, or granting them less intense forms of protection (such as the “disaster protection” under art. 20-bis of the Legislative Decree no. 286/1998) or requiring the fulfilment of additional requirements for the migrant to benefit from special protection.


In the light of the complex scenario outlined so far, this focus aims to provide some useful coordinates to understand the emerging relevance given to climate change as a legally relevant cause of forced migrations deserving protection, accompanying the brief overview just concluded with the main rulings of the Italian courts, as well as offering a bibliographic review of the doctrine recently intervened on the subject.


(Focus by Luca Galli)


Related case law:


Teitiota v. Nuova Zelanda, communication No. 2728/2016, 7 January 2020


Italian Court of Cassation, Section II, order 24 February 2021, n. 5022


Court of Aquila, order 19 February 2018


Italian Court of Cassation, Section I, 23 February 2018, n. 4455


Court of appeal of Turin, 13 March 2018, n. 462


Court of appeal of Naples, 17 May 2018, n. 2264


Court of Bari, 19 March 2021


Court of appeal of Turin, 3 June 2019, n. 928


Italian Court of Cassation, Section I, 4 February 2020, n. 2563


Court of appeal of Brescia, 16 September 2020, n. 994


Italian Court of Cassation, Section II, 24 February 2021, n. 5025


Italian Court of Cassation, Labour Section, 11 March 2021, n. 6927


Court of appeal of Bari, 4 May 2021, n. 838


Court of appeal of Bari, 29 June 2021, n. 1230


Italian Court of Cassation, Labour Section, 28 July 2021, n. 21579


Court of appeal of Catania, 2 February 2022, n. 215


Court of appeal of Venice, 8 February 2022, n. 282


Court of appeal of Catania, 31 January 2022, n. 17


Essential bibliography:


M. Acierno, Il diritto del cittadino straniero alla protezione internazionale: condizione attuale e prospettive future, in P. Morozzo della Rocca (a cura di), Immigrazione, asilo e cittadinanza, Santarcangelo di Romagna, 2021, 65


M. Benvenuti, Il dito e la luna. La protezione delle esigenze di carattere umanitario degli stranieri prima e dopo il Decreto Salvini, in Dir. imm. citt., 2019, 1


P. Bonetti, La protezione speciale dello straniero in caso di disastro ambientale che mette in pericolo una vita dignitosa, in Riv. trim. dir. pen. amb., 2021, 49


A. Brambilla, Migrazioni indotte da cause ambientali: quale tutela nell’ambito dell’ordinamento giuridico europeo e nazionale?, in Dir. imm. citt., 2017, 1


F. Brandoni, I migranti ambientali. L’altra faccia della crisi climatica. Dossier 2021 di Legambiente, 2021, online: https://www.legambiente.it/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/I-migranti-ambientali_dossier_2021.pdf


E. Castronuovo, Il permesso di soggiorno per motivi umanitari dopo la sentenza della Corte di cassazione n. 4455/2018, in Dir. imm. citt., 2018, 1


A. Del Guercio, Migrazioni connesse con disastri naturali, degrado ambientale e cambiamento climatico: sull’ordinanza n. 5022/2020 della Cassazione italiana, in Diritti umani e diritto internazionale, 2021, 521


M. Di Santi e G. Pavan, Il disastro ambientale è riconosciuto come causa sufficiente per beneficiare della protezione umanitaria?, in Quotidiano legale, 2021, online: https://www.quotidianolegale.it/il-disastro-ambientale-e-riconosciuto-come-causa-sufficiente-per-beneficiare-della-protezione-umanitaria/


E. El-Hinnawi, Environmental Refugees - UNEP, 1985, Nairobi


M. Ferri, La tutela della vita privata quale limite all’allontanamento: l’attuazione (e l’ampliamento) degli obblighi sovranazionali attraverso la nuova protezione speciale per integrazione sociale, in Dir. imm. citt., 2021, 78


L. Galli, La protezione dei migranti climatici in Italia: luci e ombre nelle prime pronunce dopo l’ordinanza n. 5022/2021 della Cassazione, in RGA, 2022, 79


J. Jacobson, Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability, in Worldwatch Paper n. 86, 1988, Washington


A. Maneggia, Non-refoulement of Climate Change Migrants: Individual Human Rights Protection or ‘Responsibility to Protect’? The Teitiota Case Before the Human Rights Committee; in Diritti umani e diritto internazionale, 2020, 1


F. Mussi, Cambiamento climatico, migrazioni e diritto alla vita: le considerazioni del Comitato dei diritti umani delle Nazioni Unite nel caso Teitiota c. Nuova Zelanda, in Riv. dir. int., 2020, 827


N. Myers, Esodo ambientale. Popoli in fuga da terre difficili, Milan, 1999


S. Nepsor, I rifugiati ambientali¸ in federalismi.it¸ 2007, 1


Organizzazione Internazionale per le Migrazioni, Glossary on migration, Ginevra, 2019, 34 – voce Climate migration, online: https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/iml_34_glossary.pdf


K.K Rigaud et al., Groundswell. Preparing for internal climate migration, Washington, 2018


C. Scissa, La protezione per calamità: una breve ricostruzione dal 1996 a oggi, in Forum di Quaderni Costituzionali, 2021, 136


B. Tonoletti, I cambiamenti climatici come problema di diritto pubblico universale, in RGA, 2021, 37


UNHCR, In Harm’s Way International protection in the context of nexus dynamics between conflict or violence and disaster or climate change, 2018, online: https://www.unhcr.org/5c1ba88d4.pdf


S. Villani, Reflections on human rights law as suitable instrument of complementary protection applicable to environmental migration, in Dir. imm. citt., 2021, 2


N. Zorzella, La nuova protezione speciale introdotta dal D.L. 130/2020. Tra principio di flessibilità, resistenze amministrative e problematiche applicative, in Dir. imm. citt., 2021, 130


N. Zorzella, La protezione umanitaria nel sistema giuridico italiano, in Dir. imm. citt., 2018, 1