Climate Change A Major Factor for Central American Migrants Fleeing to US

The mainstream media often cites Hurricanes Eta (a devastating Category 4 hurricane that caused heavy damage in early November 2020) and Iota (it underwent explosive intensification and became a rare Category 5 hurricane in mid-November) as a major factor driving the migration to the U.S. Southwestern border.  But these stories about the border crisis, which have dominated news coverage for the last week, are only now beginning to discuss the connection to climate change.  CNN and Axios in recent days explained that those rare, late-season monster storms left hundreds of thousands homeless and jobless in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras and that, along with COVID, many of them had no choice but to migrate.

Why This Matters:  Hurricanes like Eta and Iota will only become more commonplace as the globe continues to warm.  But the migration driving climate stressors go beyond severe coastal storms to drought, desertification, sea-level rise and heavy flooding.  Indeed, as Axios points out the “World Bank estimates that three regions — Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia — will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.”  Those numbers are huge.  And where will they go — you guessed it — the U.S., Europe, and even countries like India.

Severity of Storms

To be clear, there are other factors causing the mass migration to be sure, including corruption, gang violence, and poverty generally in addition to the pandemic and storms. However, warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico created the conditions that allowed both storms to intensify to the most severe wind and rain levels even  But the storms left many homeless — the severity of the storms, which was worsened by climate change, according to Kayly Ober, program manager of Refugees International’s Climate Displacement Program “wrought a level of destruction that was unheard of in some parts of the region.”  CNN explained that “Flooding wiped entire communities off the map in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Homes were destroyed. Millions of people were affected, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.”  Many families were barely scraping by, “facing food shortages and pervasive violence,” said Meghan López, the International Rescue Committee’s regional vice president for Latin America. “The hurricanes were…the last in the series of what was a devastating year,” Lopez told CNN.  But in a long-form story in The Washington Post on why the migrants are crossing the border, climate change is barely mentioned.

Building Back Better the US Refugee Program

The President issued an Executive Order on February 4 on rebuilding the Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) taking climate refugees into consideration. The President ordered the relevant agencies to report back within 180 days on “options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change; mechanisms for identifying such individuals, including through referrals; proposals for how these findings should affect use of United States foreign assistance to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.”

No International Legal Framework for Climate Refugees 

The U.S. is not alone in being unprepared for climate refugees.  As Axios reported, “the international refugee system — which was built in the aftermath of World War II — was set up to address conflict and political persecution, which means that no legal framework exists for climate refugees.” And refugees tend to move within their countries first and end up in ill-equipped urban areas, where they push government services and resources to their limits but are unable to get on their feet.  That’s when they opt to move beyond their own borders and become part of international migration.

To Go Deeper:  Check out this New York Times deep dive into the problem from last summer.  According to that story, in the most extreme warming scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years.

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