A group of Honduran migrants attempting to travel from San Pedro Sula to the United States was disbanded at the Guatemalan border on January 15th. The group consisted of approximately 8,000 Hondurans, many of whom had been internally displaced due to the devastating impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020. The hurricanes occurred just weeks apart in November 2020, costing approximately $9 billion worth of damage and resulting water contamination, according to UNICEF.
Journalist Gerardo Chavez, who travelled with the group, reported, “There are people who, at this point in time almost three months later, are still living on the street: in boulevards, under bridges.” The group had been travelling in a migrant caravan (a form of migration by land consisting of large groups) and were dispersed by a military operation at the Guatemalan border, resulting in an estimated 4,500 returning to Honduras, Reuters reported. Conditions in Honduras are abysmal; it is one of the most impoverished and violent countries in Central America.
The migrant caravan closely resembled a 2018 caravan originating in Honduras, understood to have been partially motivated by drought and crop failure in Central America. Then-President Donald Trump threatened to send the U.S. military and withdraw funding from several Central American countries if they failed to stop the caravan from crossing their borders. The Biden administration responded to the recent caravan by cautioning that now is “not the time to make the journey.”
Although it is difficult to attribute individual weather events to climate change, experts have cited a higher La Niña pattern and elevated Atlantic sea level temperatures to explain the unusually active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. Furthermore, Honduras is among the countries most at risk for climate change, due to drought, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and crop failure. Political instability, poverty, inequality, and conflict following a 2009 coup d’état exacerbate these conditions. Emigration from Honduras is often cited as being motivated by climate change.
One of the biggest issues with climate migrants is that they require much of the same support as refugees, but are not granted refugee status. Following the example of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), which was established post-WWII to protect civilians dislocated due to political violence, the U.S. defines a refugee as “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country” because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to “race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.” The U.N.H.C.R. definition encompasses 20.4 million refugees, but excludes a further 21.5 who are driven from their homes by extreme weather events and hazards such as desertification, flooding, drought, and food scarcity or humanitarian crises. The U.N.H.C.R. has dubbed those displaced by environmental causes “environmental migrants,” but protections for this group are weak.
Even classifying the Honduran migrants this way is not straightforward. Pascal Girot, from the University of Costa Rica, said, “How much of what’s happening in Honduras is due to the hurricanes or to land degradation or drought or other climate-related hazards. And how much is due to drug-related violence and other poor governance issues in Honduras, which is plagued with huge institutional problems.” The issue is further complicated by the fact that climate change exacerbates political and violent conflict, driving migration not only directly but indirectly. For example, increased food insecurity and hurricane damage in Honduras exacerbate conditions of poverty, as the already floundering Honduras government is faced with greater political unrest.
While there is no doubt that climate migrants require greater protection, no clear solution is in sight yet. One suggestion is to redefine “refugees” to include those displaced by climate change, but U.N.H.C.R. resources are already overstretched. Another is to create an additional category with legal and institutional frameworks similar to, but distinct from, refugee status. Attempts to do so in the international community thus far have been weak and non-legally binding, such as the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change, which outlined recommendations for how to assist those displaced by climate change.
In the U.S., deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Erol Yaybroke suggests extending Temporary Protected Status (T.P.S.) to those displaced by climate-related causes and creating a climate migrant resettlement program for those whose homes are rendered permanently uninhabitable by factors such as sea-level rise. However, Yaybroke notes that the likelihood of this being achieved in the next few years is low. The rise of white nationalist ideologies and resistance to immigration in the U.S. is likely to lead to political resistance to increasing numbers of migrants.
Thus, there remains a strong need to address the status and protection of those displaced by climate change. Given that those countries which contribute least to carbon emissions are also most likely to suffer from climate change’s effects, there is a moral imperative for countries like the U.S. to participate in relocating climate “refugees.”
The U.N.H.C.R. has called on states to “strengthen the protection and assistance of people displaced in the context of disasters and climate change” before a conference with the Platform on Disaster Displacement.
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