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Climate Change and Refugee Law: Introducing Irene Sacchetti

It is estimated that around 22.5 million people each year are displaced as a result of the impacts of climate change. Currently, under the legal definition these individuals are not recognised as being a refugee. To investigate the relationship between climate change and refugee law further, in a collaboration with Nottingham Trent University we are co-funding a PhD student to explore this topic. After a long application process, we are finally happy to announce that Irene Sacchetti has been selected as the doctoral student for this project.

Irene has a vast amount of experience behind her researching the impacts of climate change and has demonstrable experience of exploring these concerns in relation to vulnerable groups. In 2020 Irene graduated from the University of Bologna with an Integrated Masters degree in Public International Law. Currently, Irene is studying for an online qualification at the University of Oxford’s School of Climate Change. Outside of academia, Irene has been an intern for the Geneva International Centre for Justice and is a climate law fellow at the Centre for Climate Change Law and Sustainability Studies, at the Institute of State and Law of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. Irene was gracious enough to take the time out of her schedule to talk to us about her motivations for taking on this PhD, so without further ado here’s an introduction to Irene….


Just from reading your background I can see that you have a clear passion for fighting injustice and climate change, when it comes to the various research projects you have undertaken – do you tend to mix the topic up, or do you prefer to stick to a similar topic?

The research area I tend to stick to is related to climate change and human rights because this is something which correlates to my passions and research interests. For instance, after Christmas I will be moving to Germany to research into Earth System Law and Human Rights at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. Similarly, in the Czech Republic I was researching the challenges which climate change poses to law at all levels.


Why did you want to pursue this PhD?

I have a Bachelors and Masters degree in Law from the University of Bologna and my Masters dissertation studied the topics of climate change induced displacement under existing international law and recent case law developments. I enjoyed this research but felt that there was so much left to explore which is why I decided to study a PhD. Furthermore, I would like to be an academic in my future career and this PhD is a unique opportunity to immerse myself into the field of research. However, I do not exclude to become a legal advisor too!

Other than the topic of the PhD being a dream to me, the fact that Nottingham Trent University is home to the Centre for Rights and Justice means that there is a real possibility to research and engage with policymakers and to organise events. Additionally, the fact that this PhD is a collaboration between a university and a firm is a really good and interesting opportunity: on one hand you get to have an ‘on the ground’ perspective from the legal experts and on one the other you get the views of the academics.


I know the PhD is still in its early stages and isn’t set to commence until April, but are there any specific topics which you think you will study?

Obviously, I will need to discuss the study further with my supervisors, however, in my research proposal I detailed how I wanted to look at climate change from a human rights perspective. A possible area of research could look into how the recognition of new human rights (e.g. the right to a healthy environment and the right to a stable climate) either helps or hinders the protection of climate migrants and whether national jurisdictions have developed inherent case law. It would be interesting to analyse and compare how specific national jurisdictions conceptualise climate migration within human rights interpretation and application, in light of the well known Teitiota case.

Currently, I am discussing with the supervisors whether this research could look at human rights law response and protection to climate displacement of most vulnerable groups where cases of intersectionality arise, as climate migration is not ‘human rights neutral’. In fact, climate change is not only a ‘threat multiplier’ but mostly a ‘vulnerabilities multiplier’. Personally, I think that this is a really good angle because it’s a new and interesting intersection to research, in view of the recent decision of the UN Child Rights Committee on states’ cross-border responsibility for harmful impact of climate change.


What impacts do you think/hope that this PhD will have, and do you see this as being the start of an academical career for you?

Currently, I see myself as going into more of an academical career because I am keen to research the fields of human rights and climate change further. However, I am aware that there’s an issue with academics keeping their research within the university rather than sharing it with external stakeholders. Therefore, I want to be active and involved with migrants, external stakeholders, researchers, and policy makers to ensure that the research is having an actual impact. Through working with Paragon Law, I can confer with you and share information on current case law which is going on in the UK. Through having this collaboration, I will develop a stronger background knowledge and hopefully be able to help people ‘on the ground’ so this is another possibility of this PhD.


Where do you think your passion for fighting against injustice and climate change came from? Or has it been something which you’ve always been interested in?

I have also been passionate for nature and the Earth and have always displayed care towards it and everything in it. Every human and non-human needs a good environment to live in. In my opinion, the planet as a whole should be protected  by law at all levels, as we live in a interrelated and interdepended system where every single action has an effect.

Also the impacts of climate change in Italy are devastating but currently few people care or are aware of what is happening (and what will happen in the coming years) and why the weather is constantly changing. So I think my interest in the topics is a combination of my personal experience in relation to the effects of climate change and my passion for the planet and nature more generally.


What other effects of climate change are visible?

Migration is an effect of climate, with people forced to flee their homelands especially in developing countries. People are dying every day in the Mediterranean Sea as a result: many of which are from North or Central Africa. Most of the time these people are targeted as economic migrants or victims of war and conflict. However, it is more likely that the root causes of displacement is the detrimental impact of changes in climate.

For example, desertification is the major issue in North Africa and regions under the Sahel line will soon dry up thereby suffering from water and food shortages. This means that more individuals will migrate to the North. If they migrate then the first Western country in which they will be met with will be Italy. However, the Italian Government is not really tackling the issue from the root causes: migration as a consequence of climate change is already taking place and will become even more evident in the coming years.

Aside from this issue, Italy is currently facing water shortages: it’s not every year but it’s enough to affect the crops for the year. The current and future affects of climate change is really worrying for me.


So in summary, what are you most looking forward to about this PhD?

I am looking forward to the fact that I can take this research down a number of different routes, investigate a range of topics and hopefully have a positive impact on people’s life. I can’t wait to come to Nottingham, start my research and expand on my knowledge!



We would like to thank Irene for taking the time to speak to us and would like to wish her all the best for the project: we cannot wait to see its findings. We would also like to thank Dr Helen O’Nions for her dedication to the research topic and ensuring that the right candidate is found!