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Human mobility, natural disasters and climate change in Latin America: From understanding to action

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Importance of environmental migration for Latin America

Latin America, along with the Saharan countries of Africa, is among the regions that are most fragile and vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The most vulnerable countries have been identified as Haiti, Guyana, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala. Projected variations in rainfall patterns will bring about changes in the water cycle, such as sudden floods, droughts and the consequent risk of forest fires.

In addition, rising temperatures are leading to glacier melt in the Andes, considerably shrinking drinking water reserves and causing supply-related tension between inhabitants.

Another seriously affected geographic region is the Caribbean and Central America, where strong tropical storms have devastated the coasts of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The continent has also been hit by geophysical events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which in recent years have occurred frequently in countries such as Haiti (2010), Chile (2015), Ecuador (2016) and Mexico (2017).

Events like these often have a knock-on effect on human mobility, both across and within borders. The numbers of people affected in 2015 by flooding alone are estimated at 171,000 in Paraguay, followed by Brazil (59,000), Venezuela (45,000), Argentina (36,000) and Uruguay (24,000).

In the continent’s socioeconomic context, environmental and climate-induced migration is having a negative impact on the societies concerned: in places of origin, the proportion of economically active adults is falling, while in places of destination the local authorities are often overstretched by the new inhabitants’ integration requirements.

Human mobility in the context of climate change and natural disasters, and the interAmerican human and humanitarian rights system Responses to environmental migration problems are usually anchored in adaptation strategies carried out in the context of natural disasters, including climate change. Those affected are initially treated as ‘victims’ and granted humanitarian assistance on-site. The problem is that they are not offered the ideal conditions to migrate at the right time, which could save lives and ensure dignified treatment. In most cases, national migration legislation limits the entry into other countries of environmentally displaced persons, and even in the case of internal displacement, state policy does not fully recognise their rights as citizens.

International law recognises only one very small category of forced migrants as eligible to be granted asylum in other countries, namely ‘refugees’, ‘stateless persons’ and those entitled to additional protection. This means that other forced migrants run the risk of being banned, deported or detained if they try to cross an international border.

Examples of rights that are affected by natural disasters, climate change and environmental degradation are:

  • Right to life and security of the person

  • Right to adequate nutrition and not to go hungry

  • Right to have access to basic services, such as drinking water, health, safe housing, education, free passage and mobility

  • Right to have access to natural resources, land, water and biodiversity of good quality and sufficient quantity

  • Right to treatment and protection from the spread of disease in places affected by natural disasters