Last month, the appeals court for the Administrative Court of Bordeaux granted the status of "sick foreigner" to a Bangladeshi suffering from a respiratory disease, taking into account the air pollution in his country of origin. The decision was a first in France.
Living in France for almost a decade, Sheel*, a Bangladeshi suffering from a respiratory disease, obtained his first "residence permit for sick foreigners" in 2015. The Toulouse-based 40-something suffers from a form of severe asthma that needs extensive treatment as well as severe sleep apnea, requiring him to sleep with breathing assistance every night.
Despite his fragile state of health, in June 2019 his residence permit was denied renewal and he risked deportation, as the prefecture deemed that he could obtain appropriate treatment in Bangladesh. His request for family reunification with his wife, who remained in the country, was also rejected.
A year later, the administrative court overturned the prefect's order, arguing that while medicines to relieve asthma attacks are available for sale in Bangladesh, there is no substantive treatment. But the prefect did not stop there and took the case to the Bordeaux Court of Appeal, which on December 18, 2008, confirmed the first judgment and even added a relevant factor that was unheard of in France: that of air pollution in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh among the most polluted countries in the world
"This is the first time in France that a court has taken into account environmental criterion to justify a person benefitting from the status of a sick foreigner," Ludovic Rivière, Sheel’s lawyer, told InfoMigrants. "Because it is obvious that the environmental conditions in Bangladesh today make it possible to affirm that it would be illusory for my client to be treated there, it would amount to sending him to certain death."
Indeed, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the level of fine particles in the air is six times higher than that allowed by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO's 2016 figures, some 572,600 deaths in Bangladesh are attributable to non-communicable diseases, 82% of which are due to exposure to indoor air pollution.
Bangladesh also ranks 178th in the Environmental Performance Index, established by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities to assess global air "quality," ranking it among the most polluted countries in the world.
In addition to the dangers of air pollution, the French court also recognized that the daily power cuts and high temperatures in Bangladesh did not allow the use of the night ventilation device that Sheel needs.
Case law for 'climate refugee' status?
"Just as an AIDS patient cannot be sent back to a country where he cannot be treated or a death row inmate to a state that practices capital punishment, Sheel cannot be deported to Bangladesh. We are still a long way from making precedent and creating a real climate refugee status in France," said Rivière, who now hopes that the government and the courts will consider the climate issue more systematically. "The candidates for climate exile are going to be more and more numerous, and politicians will have no choice but to address them quickly."
François Gemenne, a teacher and specialist in environment-related migration, also sees a "step in the right direction" but doubts that the decision of the Bordeaux Court of Appeal will be replicated. "Among the applicants for protection, there are many victims of environmental degradation, this plays a real role in the causes of departure, but it is very rarely invoked with the authorities, simply because it is almost never admissible and the applicants are well aware of this," the researcher told InfoMigrants.
According to Gemenne, while the Sheel case is unprecedented, environmental criteria are occasionally taken into account by the French justice system. "These are very sporadic decisions, every two or three years. There have already been several cases in which people could not be deported to their region of origin because it was too exposed to natural disasters. It should be possible to build a precedent from all these cases, except that the current political climate is not in favor of broadening the criteria for obtaining asylum," he said.
However, Gemenme said an existing tool could make it possible to change the situation. The Nansen Agenda, ratified by 110 countries including France in 2015, has the potential to define clear protection criteria for climate refugees, but it is not binding. France, which until December 2020 was at the head of the rotating presidency of the Platform on Disaster Related Displacement, has not announced any concrete measures in this regard.
Sheel, for his part, said he was overwhelmed by his new status as a trailblazer in France. Relieved by the court's decision, he wants simply to continue his life, as well as his work in the restaurant sector. His priority is restarting his family reunification file again in order to reunite with his wife, whom he has not seen for nine years.
The United Nations Environment Programme predicts 250 million climate refugees worldwide by 2050.
*The first name has been changed at the request of the person concerned.