Preventing Statelessness and Nationality Loss in the context of Climate Change

Michelle Foster, Nicola Hard, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam
/ 6 mins read

This week, a pioneering report was launched that presents the first in-depth analysis of the legal risks of statelessness and nationality loss in the context of climate change in the Pacific. In the following blog, the report’s authors present a summary of its findings and recommendations for Pacific Island Countries and Territories to protect their people from the risks of statelessness now, and into the future, whatever it holds.

Image by Rachman Reilli via Unsplash
Image by Rachman Reilli via Unsplash

As the impacts of climate change and disasters force millions of people from their homes each year, proactive, safe and dignified migration is emerging as an adaptation measure in its own right. While most affected communities would prefer to remain in their homes, governments are also starting to realise that mobility can build resilience by providing people with the opportunity to move to safer areas and re-establish their lives and livelihoods. Yet, notwithstanding a significant range of initiatives and programmes of work underway, the relationship between climate-related mobility and statelessness has received relatively little attention.  Research into statelessness and climate change to date has tended to focus on the question whether, if a country were submerged, statehood would survive, and whether this would leave citizens of that country stateless. Apart from the complex questions this involves as a matter of international law, it is likely that people will have left the country long before loss of territory occurs.  If the impacts of climate change drive people from their homes, what happens to their relationship with their home country?

In a report released this week, we undertake the first in-depth analysis of the legal risks of statelessness and nationality loss in the context of climate change in the Pacific. Following an analysis of the nationality laws of 23 Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs), we find that under current laws, some Pacific Islanders who move abroad permanently risk losing their citizenship, or the ability to pass it on to their children. We recommend steps to safeguard nationality rights and to protect the legal connection between Pacific Islanders and their homes, now and into the future.

What is at Risk?

PICTs bear the brunt of the worst impacts of climate change. Disasters, which already ravage the Pacific each year, are expected to occur more frequently, and more powerfully. Salt-water inundation already causes flooding of homes and infrastructure, corrupts fresh water supplies, and prevents crops from growing in certain areas; over time, rising sea levels may submerge low-lying areas of land altogether. While most Pacific Islanders want to remain in their homes for as long as possible, Pacific governments are reluctantly considering cross-border mobility as one means of protecting their people from the impacts of climate change.

Some Pacific Island countries are even preparing for virtual statehood. Tuvalu’s 2021 Future Now Project (Te Ataeao Nei Project) sets out a plan to digitise all government services and archive Tuvalu’s history and culture to create a ‘digital nation’ that would retain its sovereignty, even if the entire population were to move to other countries.

If people must leave, perhaps permanently, what happens to their connection with their home country?  This question is deeply connected with important social, cultural and spiritual issues that are beyond the report’s remit.  Instead, the report considers this question from a legal perspective, and finds that under current citizenship laws, some Pacific Islanders who leave their homes permanently are at risk of losing the citizenship of their home country, or the ability to pass this on to their children. In some cases, they may even become stateless. Indeed, some people may be at risk of statelessness and nationality loss even before they leave the country.

Statelessness is not the only risk that people may face if they move away from home. Under the citizenship laws of some PICTs, people may be able to acquire another nationality, but doing so could come at the cost of retaining or passing on their home nationality. This could occur in PICTs with laws that prevent or restrict children born to citizens overseas from acquiring their parents’ citizenship, restrict or prohibit dual citizenship, or withdraw a person’s nationality if they reside abroad for a period of time, acquire another citizenship, or behave in the manner of a foreign citizen (by voting in a foreign election, or serving in a foreign army, for example). Losing the nationality of one’s home country severs a person’s legal connection to that place, and excludes them from their home country’s political future. Most immediately, loss of citizenship usually means a loss of voting rights in that country (indeed, in some PICTs, even citizens who reside overseas lose these rights). In the long term, loss of citizenship could hinder access to future iterations of the home country’s government (if, for example, a State were permitted to establish its government ‘in exile’ in another State’s territory).

People who lose the citizenship of their home country may also suffer emotional and psychological harm. This nexus of migration and nationality loss is where traditional understandings of citizenship collide with the emerging reality of a changing climate. Traditionally, citizenship was an exclusive bond between a citizen and one State, laden with the obligation of undivided loyalty and expectations of contributing to the national interest either within the territory, or overseas in national service. Globalisation has already reshaped this model in many parts of the world — dual (and even multiple) citizenship is widely accepted, and nationality represents ‘belonging’ to a national community as much as, or more than, it implies connection to a territory. As climate change threatens to leave some States uninhabitable, forcing large sections of their populations to move abroad, protecting connections between people and place requires innovative approaches to citizenship.


The international community has established safeguards to combat statelessness, and many PICTs have put some, or all, of these in place. Where appropriate, this report recommends that PICTs adopt specific safeguards against statelessness by, for example, including laws that automatically grant citizenship to children born stateless in the territory, or born stateless to citizens overseas; amending laws that discriminate based on gender, or that permit citizenship to be deprived arbitrarily; amending laws that permit statelessness to result from renunciation or withdrawal of citizenship; and making naturalisation easier for stateless people. These measures would help PICTs to protect their people from risks of statelessness now, and into the future, whatever it holds.

This report makes a number of recommendations about legal reforms that would prevent nationality loss in the Pacific. Given that these issues go to the heart of sovereignty, Pacific countries, both individually and collectively, should address them in line with the needs and desires of their people, and with the support of the international community.

Future Research Needed

As the report indicates, the lack of attention to these issues to date does not mean that statelessness is irrelevant to displacement in the context of climate change.  On the contrary, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently explained, people who are already stateless ‘face specific and heightened risks’ in the context of climate-related displacement. In addition, statelessness may result from ‘protracted or permanent displacement outside of one’s country’. What is clear is that specific research and analysis is needed to understand the risks of statelessness in this context, and to safeguard against such risks eventuating by undertaking preventative reform of laws and policies as appropriate.  We hope that our report will be the first of many such initiatives. 

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