Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Central America last November, causing heavy rain, flash floods, landslides and crop damage in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 7.3 million people in the region were affected by the twin hurricanes in December.
The effects of the hurricanes are one of the many reasons migrants from Central America make the dangerous journey to the US southern border to seek refuge – and just one example of climate-damaging drivers of displacement and migration.
“Climate change exacerbates the underlying weaknesses and grievances that may have existed for decades but are now leaving people with no choice but to move,” said Andrew Harper, special advisor on climate change at UNHCR, the United Refugee Agency Nations. said in an interview.
President Joe Biden and his administration have been under pressure from across the political spectrum to curb the flow of migrants on the US southern border.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 172,000 people were encountered trying to cross the southern border in March. This is a 71% increase over the previous month and a 34% increase over the same period in 2019. The vast majority of people reach the limit based on Health Ordinance Title 42, even though asylum is a legal right in the United States .
CBP cited “violence, natural disasters, food insecurity and poverty” in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for the increasing number of encounters at the border.
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“Climate change is never the only driving force behind migration decisions,” said Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International. “We see a confluence of events.”
Ober said that in addition to sudden onset disasters like Hurricanes Eta and Iota, longer-term climate challenges like drought contribute to instability, particularly in the so-called dry corridor – a region along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, told CNBC that at least a third of the migrants LIRS works cite climate-related reasons as the main driver behind their displacement.
“You can see migrants initially internally displaced due to crop failures. However, this initial displacement makes them more vulnerable to gang violence and persecution, which then leads to international migration as the situation worsens,” Vignarajah said.
Sarah Blodgett Bermeo, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, recently co-authored a study examining the causes of migration from Honduras.
Using the available data from 2012 to 2019, the study found that negative rainfall was linked to greater numbers of Honduran families arrested on the US southern border. A higher level of violence, measured by the murder rates, increased the extent of the association even further.
“As climate change continues to affect the world, we will see more and more of these mixed migratory flows, with people coming from the same country for different reasons,” said Bermeo.
Meghan López, the regional vice president of the International Bailout Committee for Latin America, also highlighted the overlapping factors driving migration.
“We cannot say that it is violence, we cannot say that it is climate change, we cannot say that it is family reunification. It is everything. For every family there is a slightly different mix of these factors,” said López .
“People want to get out of the situation they are in and the next safe stop is the US,” said López. “History is what people are fleeing from, not where they are running to.”
Harper, UNHCR’s special advisor on climate action, stressed the importance of “direct, ambitious” action by countries around the world to improve climate adaptability and disaster risk reduction in particularly vulnerable regions such as Central America.
“What we basically need is the mobilization that has taken place for Covid on a global level, but for the climate,” said Harper. “We can’t push this down any further and say it is a threat in the future. It is a threat now.”
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