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Climate Change Disasters Point to Urgent Need to Protect Climate Refugees

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by Moses Ngong and Maureen Meyer

In the fall of 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America, southern Mexico, and parts of northern South America within weeks of each other. Respectively the 27th and 29th major Atlantic storms of the 2020 season, their impacts were widespread and had dramatic consequences in the region, with Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua particularly hard hit. Hundreds were killed, more than 100,000 families lost their homes or were otherwise displaced, and more than 6 million people were affected by floods, landslides, and other impacts of extreme weather.

As the 2021 hurricane season begins, the lasting damage of Eta and Iota serves as a recent example of the disastrous effects of climate change in one of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable regions. As storms continue to pose grave threats to Central America, and with the release of the most recent IPCC report painting a grim picture for how climate change will affect a region already disproportionately impacted by it, **governments need to look towards long-term solutions to long-term problems. **

Eta and Iota’s devastation

The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates Eta and Iota caused almost $3 billion in damages, including over $2.16 billion of devastation in Honduras alone. Massive flooding wiped out subsistence and commercial agricultural yields, with experts predicting that the storms created food insecure conditions that could last well into 2021.

Donors have pledged billions in aid to address Eta and Iota’s devastation—up to USD$1.2 billion from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), $2.5 billion from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), nearly $31 million from USAID (alongside an additional $310 million in humanitarian support), and an estimated $21 million from the European Union. These immediate pledges for support are promising—but the long-term challenge is preparing to mitigate the impact of future storms.

Climate change experts from the U.S. federal government and the academic community are saying that Iota and Eta are merely a “preview” of worse to come. While it’s unclear whether climate change will mean more or less hurricanes, experts predict that storms that do occur will only get stronger, with more volatility, intense winds, and rain expanding their potential to damage vulnerable communities and economies. Overall, weather across the Americas is predicted to become increasingly volatile as a result of El Niño (a climate phenomenon that causes extreme weather), which is expected to occur more frequently as a result of climate change. Over long periods of time, this could translate to ecosystems changing and becoming more difficult for humans to inhabit.

All this will force many vulnerable Central Americans into untenable circumstances at home, spurring migration from the region. But to understand the degree to which climate change is likely to increase mass migration, we need to look at just how much climate emergencies have already inflicted gradual, but undeniable, harm to communities across the region, beyond Eta and Iota.

Impacts of climate change in Central America

One of climate change’s most severe impacts is drought-related food shortages, devastating poor, often rural and Indigenous communities. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food insecurity related to drought in Central America’s dry corridor has left 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In 2019, 2.2 million people in Central America lost their crops due to erratic weather, with 1.4 million needing urgent food assistance. Climate change is also believed to have exacerbated coffee rust outbreaks—a plant disease that’s cost over $1 billion in economic damage since 2012.

Other research points to Central America’s unique vulnerability as climate change accelerates. A report released by ECLAC stated that from 1994-2013, climate risk affected Honduras more than any other country in the world, with Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador all among the top 15 countries affected by climate risk in that period. This is true despite the region producing less than 0.8 percent of net total global emissions.

There’s another factor feeding into Central America’s vulnerability, and driving some to leave their homes amidst the changing weather: inadequate (and at times negligent) responses by governments across the region to climate disasters.

A wanting regional governmental response

In Honduras, the country hit the hardest by Eta and Iota, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government failed to mitigate the damage inflicted by the storms. Immediately before Eta made impact, the government was still promoting tourism, despite warnings of the storm’s power. After the storms hit, the response was “improvised and disorganized,” according to a first-responder on the ground. One local mayor told reporters that officials were not responding** to repeated requests for aid**, despite the near total collapse of community infrastructure. Even months after the storms hit the region, the government has yet to repair damaged infrastructure and provide protection for communities near rivers, leading to protests from citizen groups.

The negligence seen in the Honduran government’s response to Eta/Iota is only one of the ways they’re exacerbating the threat climate change poses. Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, a leading activist of the Lenca Indigenous people and daughter of Bertha Cáceres (an environmentalist murdered for her opposition to a hydroelectric development project) has argued that state development projects in Honduras—including mining and monoculture—weaken the ecosystem’s capacity to protect people from major climate events, an assertion backed by scientific research.

In Nicaragua, some of the citizens who survived a deadly mudslide claim that nobody from President Daniel Ortega’s government warned them before the hurricane hit. They also pointed to poor infrastructure and disruptions in communications services that delayed volunteers reaching the community to try and recover people buried in mud. Local officials in charge of managing the disaster hid information about dead and missing people and banned independent reporters from entering a disaster area.

The government was also insensitive in its public statements, with Vice President Rosario Murillo claiming residents denied an offer to relocate due to their location in a risk zone, in addition to denying any inaction by government officials.

The response of the Guatemalan government, where the storms primarily impacted Indigenous communities in rural zones with rates of extreme poverty, did not fare much better. Indigenous community leaders have said there was no federal support for initial search and rescue operations in the storms’ immediate aftermath, and support from municipal governments was delayed.

A new wave of climate-caused migration

Eta and Iota exacerbated a migration crisis that predated their arrival in Central America. Central American migration towards the United States began to steadily increase between 2012 and 2013, with fluctuations throughout the years due to different enforcement efforts and policies in the United States and Mexico. Migration trends in late 2020 indicated a surge in migrants that preceded the storms, and as more migrants flee, they are more likely to be exposed to crime and human rights violations caused by the government and organized criminal groups.

As precipitation patterns change and droughts and heat waves are projected to increase, more and more people will be unable to rely on subsistence farming and will be pressured to leave their homes, either as internally displaced people or as climate refugees to other nations. Urbanization will increase, with projections of urban populations growing from 90 million in 2010 to 140 million in 2050. With some major urban hubs, like Mexico City, already unable to provide basic services for residents, it could mean further stretching of resources, an expansion of inequality, and more migrants headed to the U.S. and elsewhere.

The UN has been slow to officially recognize climate refugees: those who are displaced or lose their homes because of natural disasters and climate change. While there are protections for people in countries where drought-related famine causes armed conflict, there are no established protections for those whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted because of climate change, a population of more than 10 million people around the world that is only predicted to grow in a changing climate. The World Bank estimates that Mexico and Central America alone will have anywhere from 1.4 to 2.1 million climate migrants** by 2050**.

A recent ruling from the UN suggests there is some momentum in recognizing the reality that people are being displaced due to climate. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said, “**If you have an immediate threat to your life due to climate change, [and enter another country], you should not be sent back because you would be at risk of your life, just like in a war or in a situation of persecution.**” While his words and the case did not establish a legal framework for people to claim refugee status on the basis of climate, they are a step in the right direction in ensuring those displaced by climate will have the support of international law.

Nevertheless, there are still major international gaps in supporting those displaced because of climate. Many displaced Central Americans turn north to migrate, but currently neither Mexico nor the United States have a system for supporting climate refugees. Senator Ed Markey and Representative Nina Velasquez have introduced legislation that would create a resettlement pathway for climate-displaced persons, but Biden’s administration has yet to weigh in on it. Other members of Congress have also called on the Biden administration to work with international leaders to address people displaced by climate crises.

Climate refugees and the Biden administration

The Biden administration should be a leader in the international community and establish goodwill in the region by calling for the UN to recognize climate refugees and protecting climate migrants from neighboring countries. Actions could include increasing the number of individuals displaced by climate who are eligible for programs such as work visas, as well as expanding the use of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) status, a humanitarian program that protects those living in the United States after fleeing catastrophes back home.

After Hurricane Mitch, the worst storm to affect Central America prior to Eta and Iota, the U.S. government responded by offering hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, as well as offering TPS to hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants. While the Trump administration sought to end the program, last year the Department of Homeland Security extended it for migrants from the affected countries. In the wake of Eta and Iota, the Honduran government has asked for the extension of TPS protections for Hondurans in the United States past the program’s current expiration date in October 2021, while the Guatemalan government has asked that TPS protections be granted to Guatemalans.

The administration has already shown a commitment to addressing climate refugees. On February 4, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order on rebuilding and enhancing refugee resettlement programs. It calls for the assistant to the president for national security affairs to present a report within 180 days on the impact of climate change on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation. A July report released by Refugees International meant to inform the official one focuses on the inevitable impacts of climate change on migration, mitigating the need to migrate, and displacement, protection, and migration pathways for those fleeing climate disasters.

In recognition of the importance of addressing climate change, the administration also included a focus on “climate change adaptation and resilience” as part of the planned $4 billion regional strategy to address the “root causes” of migration from Central America. The recently released strategy focuses on:

  • Addressing economic insecurity and inequality.
  • Combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law.
  • Promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press.

While not a “pillar” of the strategy, climate change is referenced as an overarching threat to the region and is discussed throughout the document, stating, among other things, “The United States will partner with governments, [international financial institutions (IFIs), multilateral development banks (MDBs)], and the private sector to facilitate the development of agricultural practices to ensure farmers can better respond to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events, which have contributed to food insecurity.”

A more resilient Central America

Most Central American countries have yet to reckon with the long-term challenges of climate change. Building the infrastructure needed to reduce the impact of future storms will likely be a decades-long project. It means changing where and how communities are built, the kinds of crops cultivated, and ensuring all citizens have access to multi-hazard early warning systems. It will require analyzing broader trends to identify which regions are the most likely to receive new climate refugees.

A major long-term challenge is fighting corruption. Regional governments are prone to accusations of corruption and a lack of transparency—including during the COVID-19 pandemic—and graft is especially common in public infrastructure works. The state institutions charged with distributing funds to prevent and respond to natural disasters are not exempt from endemic corruption. Corruption has also facilitated deforestation, leaving areas more vulnerable to flooding and landslides. Mechanisms must be developed that ensure assistance and loans end up in communities or local NGOs that need it, and not in the hands of corrupt officials.

Civil society initiatives should be empowered to take a leading role in both developing and implementing any projects aimed at boosting climate change resiliency in the region. According to the Root Causes Initiative, a group representing actors from across the region, less than 5 percent in foreign aid from 2010-2020 went to local civil society organizations, and less than 1 percent was spent on key resiliency projects like water and sanitation.

As it continues to face crises, Central America will need to strike a balance between pursuing these long-term reforms and addressing the need for immediate help. Villages buried in mud and dozens of families living under bridges after the storms hit, in combination with the medium-term impacts of the hurricanes, has pushed some of the region’s poorest populations close to the brink of desperation.

A path to effectively support migrants

Climate is causing storms like Hurricanes Eta and Iota to become less predictable and likely more volatile. These storms—as well as other climate change-related disasters such as prolonged drought and floods—will force more and more people to leave their homes.

Governments around the world have yet to adopt policies or conventions that consider climate refugees. However, with already vulnerable Central American nations in need of stability and resiliency in the face of climate change, the United States and other countries in the hemisphere should broaden the opportunity for those displaced by climate to access protection, while working with local and national organizations and partner governments to provide technical and financial assistance that helps people dealing with the consequences of climate change adapt to the new reality it presents.