UDHR@75: Article 14 and Climate Refugees

Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez

This blog forms part of a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Recognising the numerous conflicts and the daily breaches of human rights taking place across the globe, this series aims to highlight both the challenges and the opportunities to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights elaborated in the UDHR.



Article 14 and Climate Refugees 

Article 14(1) of the UDHR

‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that people have the right to seek asylum from persecution. This right traditionally applies to those who are persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, as specified in the subsequently adopted Refugee Convention. However, the understanding of what necessitates seeking asylum has evolved over the last 75 years since its inclusion in the UDHR. In the 21st century, this is now changing again to adapt to new challenges such as climate and environmental displacement. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, current predictions suggest that by 2050, there could be 1.2 billion people displaced from climate and environmental threats, making climate refugees a ‘top priority’ for the UNHRC going forward.  

Throughout its history, the right to asylum in the UDHR has evolved to encompass situations beyond its original understanding. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are an example that demonstrates the dynamic nature of the right to asylum. IDPs are individuals who are forced to relocate on similar grounds as refugees, although they do not cross international borders. Despite bearing similar protection needs described in Article 14, internally displaced persons (IDPs) were not traditionally considered under the asylum framework. However, international protection gradually became applicable for IDPs, expanding the grounds for receiving protections under this right. Additionally, this framework has recently been applied to people displaced by natural disasters. Although the term “refugee” has been avoided, the support processes share many similarities with those of refugees and have therefore also been addressed under this framework. 

The ongoing changes to international protection needs that emerge as a result of climate change threats suggest the necessity to broaden the scope of Article 14. Inhabitants of certain island nations, such as Kiribati, have already needed international protection due to displacement from rising sea levels. However, with a traditional understanding of asylum, it remains difficult to extend protections to people displaced by environmental factorscreate an applicable framework to resolve the discrepancy between the need and access to protection. The current use of the asylum regime in state practice and the acknowledgement of the limitations of a persecution-based understanding of protection demonstrates both the opportunities and challenges of utilising this framework for future problems. 

The future is expected to bring an increasing number of individuals impacted and displaced by climate change and environmental threats. As a result, it is imperative to develop how international law can support these individuals. The past success of Article 14 and the broader asylum framework to adapt dynamically to changing necessities demonstrates its applicability in addressing climate refugees. Since the need for international protection remains the same from the traditional understanding of refugees to climate refugees, Article 14 is becoming highly significant in the search for solutions to this global problem.  


As part of the GJA UDHR@75 celebration, we invited present and past students to contribute their personal reflections on the relevance of the UDHR today. This blog is by Şükrü Kağan Sürücü and Lucy Tomkins. They are PhD Law Candidates at the University of Edinburgh.