In the case of I.L. v. Italian Ministry of the Interior and the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal of Ancona, decided on 24 February 2021 by the Supreme Court of Cassation in Italy, a significant precedent was established in humanitarian asylum cases. The decision mandated that Italian trial judges should collectively assess situations of environmental, social, or climate degradation when evaluating eligibility for humanitarian protection, in addition to considering situations of armed conflict. The case involved a Nigerian citizen, I.L., who sought refuge in Italy, primarily due to armed paramilitary conflict in the Niger Delta region that was being exacerbated by environmental degradation, particularly numerous oil spills.
The applicant claimed that the lower courts committed a prejudicial error by not taking into account the environmental disaster situation in the Niger Delta as a basis for humanitarian protection. He argued that the trial judge’s decision violated Legislative Decree No. 286/1998, known as the Consolidated Immigration Act, by failing to extend humanitarian protection based on the environmental disaster in his home region. The central issue at hand was to ascertain whether individuals facing a real threat to their right to life in their country of origin, due to adverse social, environmental, and climate circumstances rather than armed conflict, should be granted humanitarian protection.
The Supreme Court of Cassation accepted the applicant’s appeal and remanded the case back to the Court of Ancona. The Court found that the applicant’s two grounds for appeal were well-founded. It recognized the existence of severe environmental instability in the Niger Delta, resulting from indiscriminate exploitation by oil companies and ethnic-political conflicts. The trial judge’s failure to consider the environmental context and widespread insecurity when assessing humanitarian protection eligibility was seen as an error.
The Court’s decision drew on international legal precedent, including the Teitiota decision from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which recognized that environmental degradation could hinder the right to life when a state is unable or unwilling to ensure ‘access to essential natural resources, such as arable land and drinking water’. The Court’s key findings and instructions are as follows:
- When assessing humanitarian protection, the evaluation of widespread dangerous conditions in the applicant’s country of origin should consider specific risks to the right to life and dignified existence arising from environmental degradation, climate change, or unsustainable development of the area.
- Danger to an individual’s life can depend on socio-environmental conditions, not solely armed conflict. Such socio-environmental factors include human action that seriously jeopardizes an individual’s survival and that of their relatives.
- Trial judges are instructed to establish an ‘essential level’ below which decent living conditions are not present and the fundamental right to life is not ensured. The judge must then verify the effective assurance of this minimum threshold, which should encompass both armed conflict and other circumstances that pose a serious risk to the individual and their family’s survival, such as social, environmental, or climatic degradation or unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.
- The Court determined that if the situation in the country of origin does not allow for a minimum guarantee of the right to life, humanitarian protection should be granted. Importantly, this assessment now includes environmental and climatic factors influencing an individual’s decision to leave their home.
The case documents are accessible via Climate Case Chart: Click here.
Status of the case:
Judgment of the Supreme Court of Cassation – Second Civil Section
I.L. v. Italian Ministry of the Interior and Attorney General at the Court of Appeal of Ancona, Supreme Court of Cassation, N. 5022/2021, 24 February 2021.
03 November 2023.