Blog post by Aimilina (Georgia Aimilia) Sarafi & Helena Salinas Lopez, part of the Amsterdam European Law Clinic Team 2022/2023

The right to life and asylum-seekers: how the risks of forest fires and other environmental harm might trigger positive obligations of States towards asylum-seekers within their jurisdiction.


Due to the interrelation between climate change and human rights it is necessary to adopt a rights-based approach to address environmental degradation, especially with regard to the protection of the rights of the most vulnerable collectives. It has long been recognised that the negative impacts of climate are especially borne by communities already in disadvantageous situations. In areas that do not possess the resources to tackle or to recover from hazardous environmental events, populations are sometimes forced to leave their houses because of the inhabitability of their native land. The increasing importance of this issue provoked by climate change and the progressive degradation of the environment explains growing interest in the phenomenon of environmental refugees that recent academic literature has demonstrated. Nevertheless, little attention has been shown to the environmental living conditions that asylum seekers are confronted with in the reception centers of the country in which they seek protection.

Therefore, this article will focus on the human rights obligation of European states to ensure the right to life of asylum seekers living in reception centers against environmental threats. Accordingly, the first part will address the content and scope of the right to life in the context of environmental disasters set up by the international and European legal framework, to then determine the specific human rights obligation of the state to protect the life of asylum seekers by ensuring the environmental conditions of reception centers. Moreover, in order to illustrate this problem and to evidence the implications that this issue has for asylum seekers in the general context, the newly built “Vastria CACC” (Vastria Closed Controlled Access Centre) on Lesvos will be used in as an example of the risk that environmental degradation, in this case fire risks, poses to the right to life of asylum seekers.

Part 1: Environmental threats and the right to life in reception centers

The right to life recognised by art. 6 of the ICCPR and by art. 2 of the ECHR, is a fundamental right the effective protection of which is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights. Due to its importance, The UN Human Rights Committee has also consistently held as well as enshrined in a General Comment, that the right to life is a “supreme” and non-derogable right, to be afforded to everyone “even in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.”

Moreover, unlike other human rights, the right to life belongs to every human being. Therefore, the right to life must always be guaranteed to any person, on the contrary to certain human rights such as the right to vote which are reserved to the citizens of the state. States are thus under the obligation to respect and, as it will be demonstrated below, to protect the right to life of the people that live in reception centers placed under their jurisdiction.

Once demonstrated that the personal scope of this right covers asylum seekers, it is now necessary to determine its personal scope to determine whether this right can be applied to this specific case. First of all, it must be noted that because of its supreme nature, the right to life must be interpreted narrowly to ensure its effective protection. Accordingly, it has been recognised that the material scope of this right exceeds the concept of direct physical injury, deprivations of life may take different forms including any act or omission that would harm or threaten the physical or mental integrity of a person. Therefore, specific risks but also general societal conditions may constitute a threat to the enjoyment of this right. Regarding the latter category, the degradation of the environment is progressively becoming one of the most serious threats to the ability of the present but mostly of the future generations to enjoy the right to life, as provisions like the preamble of the Paris Agreement have recognised.

Part 2: The state obligation to ensure the environmental conditions of reception centers

It has been well-established in case law and interpretative guides of the ECtHR that States have the positive obligations to ensure the protection right to life within their jurisdiction. The ECtHR has stated in numerous cases that “the first sentence of Article 2 § 1 enjoins the State not only to refrain from the intentional and unlawful taking of life, but also to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within its jurisdiction.” Initially the Court expanded upon these positive obligations in cases of protection from the criminal acts of other individuals within the state’s jurisdiction. A violation of the state’s positive obligations to protect the right to life occurs if “the authorities knew, or ought to have known at the time, of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of identified individuals from the criminal acts of a third party and that they failed to take measures within the scope of their powers which, judged reasonably, might have been expected to avoid that risk.” The Court has since expanded those positive obligations to include protections from real risks to life to situations of omissions attributable to state authorities and accidents entailing the loss of life.

Therefore, apart from the negative obligation of abstention  from carrying out acts that could damage this right, the state holds a positive due diligence obligation to put in place the necessary measures to protect the right to life against any potential threat, including hazardous environmental events. This obligation involves the need to carry out ex post facto investigations but also to implement preventive measures that would avoid the risks from materialising. In the Makaratzis v. Greece case the court states that it is not necessary for the applicants to have died for a breach of their right to life to be triggered since that interpretation would offer low practical protection. Hence, states are required to put in place preventive measures to prevent specific or general societal risks from materialising. 

Those measures need to take into account the specific circumstances of the protected group, especially in relation to vulnerable collectives. Regarding the protection of the right to life of asylum seekers living in reception centers, the environmental living conditions need to be considered by the state to put in place adequate preventive measures to protect their right to life, since as previously demonstrated, environmental threats may hinder the enjoyment of this right. Thus, states must adopt measures such as the conduction of environmental impact assessments or the control of the safety of the location and infrastructures of reception centers to measure the negative impact that hazardous environmental activities like fire, droughts or floods risks may have on the living conditions.

The lack of initiatives on the part of the state to foresee and put in place measures to stop environmental disasters from taking place has been recognised by international courts and tribunals as a violation of the positive obligation of the state to protect the right to life. Yet, this duty cannot be interpreted in a way that would entail a disproportionate or impossible burden on the state authorities. Accordingly, it would be unrealistic to expect states to undertake measures to prevent every danger to the right of life from occurring.

For a positive obligation to arise, it must be proven that the authorities were aware of the existence of real and imminent risk, which includes environmental threats to life. Regarding the knowledge requirement the ECtHR affirmed that the standard of evidence assessment would be ”beyond a reasonable doubt.” That means that, on a general basis, the Court applies a high standard of proof as regards to the facts. Nevertheless, if there are sufficiently strong, clear and concordant interferences of similar unrebutted presumptions of facts this threshold may be reached.

Part 3: The example of the Vastria camp

On the basis of the explanation of the relevant case law and legislation, it is clear that the single most crucial factor for determining when a State is responsible for a violation of the right to life is an awareness of a real risk to the life of individuals within its jurisdiction. Therefore, in the case of the Vastria CCAC, the important factor would be establishing an awareness of Greek authorities that the camp’s location in the middle of an unburnt, protected, pine forest, as well as the lack of an appropriate evacuation strategy or road leaving the camp, poses a real risk to the life of the asylum-seekers that would be placed within that camp. We argue that one must assume the Greek government must necessarily be aware of this real risk to the life of the asylum-seekers inhabiting the Vastria CCAC in the future.

Let us examine the evidence for such an awareness by the Greek government authorities. First of all, the President of the fire brigade workers of the North Aegean region has given a public statement strongly criticising the decision on the placement of the camp in the middle of the unburnt protected pine forest in Vastria. He has mentioned that the island’s firefighters have repeatedly attempted to educate asylum-seekers on the operation of fire extinguishers, to no avail. The North Aegean fire brigade President characteristically stated that “the area is not recommended for the safety of, first and foremost, the people and the workers,” referring to the implausibility of any safe evacuation plan with the lack of proper road construction and the remote location. He has strongly cautioned against the camp’s operation, due to the risk of a wildfire breaking out that would burn down “half of the island.” With such a vocal stance from the island firefighters, it is difficult to deny the Greek authorities’ knowledge of the risks involved in building and operating a CCAC in a densely forested area, at a very high risk of fire and with no operational evacuation plan for the thousands that would be housed there.

Secondly, the European Forest Fire Information System’s (EFFIS) wildfire risk viewer identifies the entire forested area on the island of Lesvos, including the Vastria pine forest, as being “high risk” for wildfires. The EFFIS agency operates in partnership with all European Union (EU) Member States, as well as the EU Commission, therefore making it quite hard to argue that Greece is unaware of this grave wildfire risk in the area where the CCAC is being constructed. This information, coupled with the unprecedented rate of wildfires increasing year by year in the country, makes it hardly imaginable that the Greek authorities would not have the necessary awareness of the real and imminent risk to the life of asylum-seekers living in the Vastria camp.

As mentioned above, what the Öneryildiz v. Turkey case teaches us is that in situations where there is “a causal link between, on the one hand, the negligent omissions attributable to the […] authorities and, on the other, the occurrence of the accident […] and the ensuing loss of human life”, the ECtHR has found a violation of the right to life. The Court concluded in Öneryildiz that the Turkish government ”could not be said to have done everything that could reasonably be expected of them to prevent the materialisation of the real risks to the lives of the inhabitants.”

Knowing the high risk of wildfires in the Vastria CCAC area, as well as the concerns of the firefighters and the lack of appropriate evacuation strategy, it is quite easy to imagine how a forest fire in the Vastria camp could prove deadly to many asylum-seekers that would reside there. In this case, following from the Öneryildiz jurisprudence, it is very easy to surmise how the camp’s chosen location, the lack of proper evacuation procedures and of an appropriate road to the camp, as well as the available information coming from the EFFIS system and the island’s firefighters would amount to “negligent omissions” within the meaning of the ECtHR, and would certainly be “attributable to the authorities” seeing as the Greek government was responsible for the location selection and construction of the camp and the relevant infrastructure.

Available evidence show that the knowledge requirement set out by the jurisprudence of the ECtHR would be met in this case, since it would be very difficult to deny that the Greek government is aware of the great risk of fire on that part of the island, which could prove to be fatal for hundreds of migrants to be placed in the camp due to the EFFIS assessment and through the public opposition of the camp’s placement by the island’s firefighters.

The ECtHR has consistently held that the Convention must be “interpreted and applied in such a way as to make its safeguards practical and effective.” If the Greek government were to place any asylum-seekers in the Vastria CCAC, we can question whether or not this would conflict with their positive obligations to put in place practical effective safeguards for the right to life of asylum-seekers within their jurisdiction.

The facts show that the Vastria CCAC is situated in a critical danger point for wildfires in the high-risk summer season. If such a fire were to occur in or around the camp area, there is a high chance that many lives of asylum seekers would be lost either by the flames or by the inhalation of smoke. Moreover, the isolation of the camp would make it difficult to access health care for the wounded that would have a high chance of dying on the road.

These deaths are clearly foreseeable and preventable by the Greek state. An unburnt pine forest in a country that lost nearly 100.000 hectares of forested area in less than two weeks in the year 2023, which just suffered its worst heat wave in three decades, and in which eighteen migrants arriving through Turkey into the Northern Evros region were allegedly killed, the Greek government is trapping asylum-seekers in a pile of kindling and lighting the match.

Part 4: Broader implications for asylum-seekers everywhere

What can the example of Vastria teach us about the intersection between climate change, environmental security and the positive obligations of governments vis-à-vis the right to life?

The case of Vastria teaches us that, according to international human rights law, all States parties to the ECHR have a positive obligation:

  1. “Not only to refrain from the intentional and unlawful taking of life, but also to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within its jurisdiction” (Osman).
  2. Install protections from real risks to the life of individuals within their jurisdiction from situations of omissions attributable to state authorities and ensuing accidents entailing the loss of life (Öneryildiz).

And that, more generally, all States Parties to the ICCPR have the obligation to:

  • Protect the right to life of the people under their jurisdiction or control and within the scope of their powers from “reasonable threats and life-threatening situations that can result in loss of life” (GC No. 36).

Under jurisprudence point 1 of European human rights law, a State can be held responsible for violating their human rights obligation to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of asylum seekers that are legally found to be within their jurisdiction.

Nevertheless it is human rights jurisprudence point 2 and 3 that  opens up a range of possible State responsibility for human rights violations caused by environmental degradation of asylum seekers within their jurisdiction.They prove that states have a positive obligation to take all measures within the scope of their powers to protect asylum-seekers from all situations that can reasonably result in loss of life. In the context of climate change and environmental risks, these points of jurisprudence open the door to the requirement of positive action from governments to mitigate the risks that such factors pose to the lives of asylum-seekers.

For example, it is likely that, as demonstrated in the first section, a flood due to prolonged rainfall and resulting in the deaths of asylum-seekers inhabiting a reception facility in a flood-prone valley can be classified as a violation of international human rights law by their host State, if the legal requirements set out in law and jurisprudence are fulfilled. Similarly, raging wildfires in high-risk areas hosting asylum-seekers resulting in preventable deaths can also mean a violation of the right to life by the State responsible for their protection, as the example of the Vastria refugee camp proves.

Climate change poses unique threats to human survival everywhere. Asylum-seekers represent a particularly vulnerable population which often lacks appropriate protection by State authorities and is subjected to numerous human rights violations, like inhuman or degrading treatment, or arbitrary de-facto detention.


This article has discussed a rights-based examination of asylum-seeker reception centres and focused on the right to life, widely recognised as a fundamental human right in international legal documents. It has argued that this rights-based approach needs to consider a rapidly changing environment that poses increasing risks to the safety of asylum-seekers, including a threat to their enjoyment of the right to life. Asylum reception conditions may not only be an issue under the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or the right to liberty, but in an increasingly volatile environment, with risks of flood and wildfires increasing due to climate change, reception conditions may also pose a threat to the right to life.

This is the second post in a three-part series on the Vastria CACC. Read the first post on isolation here.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.