Since at least 2014, a growing number of asylum-seekers from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. While the response from the Obama administration raised genuine protection concerns, the Trump administration has taken the draconian and unwelcoming approach of dismantling the U.S. asylum system by restricting grounds for asylum, separating families, and illegally blocking access to ports of entry. The current administration has also adopted the “Remain in Mexico” policy and so-called safe third country agreements, which forces asylum-seekers to remain in dangerous situations.
Many individuals coming to the United States from Central America are fleeing violence, poverty, and corruption. But climate change is emerging as both a direct and an indirect driver of migration that complicates existing vulnerabilities. Persistent drought, fluctuating temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall have reduced crop yields throughout the Northern Triangle—a region that comprises El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—challenging livelihoods and access to food in agriculturally dependent communities. By denying the reality of climate change and taking a hard-line approach to migration, the Trump administration has shown its unwillingness to address the root causes of migration in the Americas.
A lack of a legal framework for environment and climate-induced migration
There is currently no international legal framework to address environmental disasters and climate change as drivers of migration. There is also no consensus on what terminology should be used to describe individuals moving due to environmental factors. The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Refugee Protocol, multilateral agreements that define “refugee” and set states’ obligations for protection, were not crafted with the environment, climate change, or environmental disasters in mind—and therefore do not mention them as grounds for refugee protection. U.S. refugee policy, codified in the Refugee Act of 1980, is largely based on the framework outlined in these agreements and thus excludes these terms.
The current multilateral agreements and definition of a refugee have provided crucial protections for individuals fleeing life-threatening situations. However, it has been nearly 40 years since these definitions have been updated, and circumstances globally have since changed. Notably, climate change and increased environmental disasters are now influencing migration.
The International Organization for Migration, along with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank, advocate the explicit use of “climate migrant”—instead of “climate or environmental refugee”—when referring to this migration, as designating someone as a “refugee” has legal ramifications. The use of “migrant” avoids the tricky issues that would arise if the United Nations were to reopen the technical definition of a “refugee,” as set out by the 1951 and 1967 agreements. In today’s climate, such an effort could result in a watered-down definition of what it means to be a refugee rather than a more robust definition appropriate to the global challenges of today and of the years ahead.
Additionally, migration is multicausal, and it is likely that the most vulnerable people would not be able to prove climate and environmental factors as the sole reason migration is necessary—something that could be required if climate change and environmental disasters are incorporated into existing agreements. Climate change outcomes are more abstract than poverty and malnutrition, for example, and economic insecurity is not considered a valid reason to grant someone asylum and refugee protections under current legal frameworks. But the need to protect individuals facing these circumstances is urgent.
The different types of climate-related migration
Different environmental events prompt different migration trends. Migration driven by sudden-onset disasters, such as typhoons, hurricanes, wildfires, and landslides, is often an immediate survival response. In most cases, those fleeing remain within the borders of a nation, and international refugee law does not consider internally displaced people as refugees. However, as climate change continues, these disasters will become more frequent and intense––forcing greater numbers of individuals to flee both internally and across borders.
Climate change is also increasing the likelihood and impacts of slow-onset disasters and environmental degradation, such as droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and rain pattern shifts. With more drawn-out consequences, these events can result in long-term, mass migration over international borders. Decisions to migrate due to slow-onset disasters are influenced by preexisting socio-economic, demographic, and political factors. People who are wealthy, educated, or otherwise privileged are more likely to have the resources required to either adapt to the changing environment or leave. Meanwhile, marginalized communities who are most vulnerable are likely to remain trapped.
Although a universal agreement on terminology is important to give recognition to climate-related migration and work toward some legal framework, getting lost in the legality and semantics of the situation quickly removes the humanity from the issue. What is evident is that the global community is ill-prepared to deal with environment and climate-induced migration in a compassionate and just manner.
Climate-change induced migration in the Northern Triangle
This link between climate change and migration is apparent at the U.S.-Mexico border, where individuals arriving from the Northern Triangle are naming crop failure and food insecurity as a growing driver of migration. Fluctuating temperatures and unpredictable rainfall throughout the Northern Triangle have destroyed crops and livelihoods, making food insecurity increasingly acute and driving migration. Climate change disproportionally affects indigenous communities who engage in traditional agricultural activities and who have long faced persecution and discrimination. This is the case in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, where years of climate-related drought have threatened the income and food security of subsistence farmers, contributing to increased poverty and chronic malnutrition rates—as high as 79 percent and 58 percent, respectively—for indigenous peoples. Vacant homes and dried-up crops are scattered throughout the region, providing physical proof of how climate change complicates social and economic conditions and triggers the need to move.
In addition to causing the failure of basic grains, warming temperatures and fluctuating rainfall patterns are also a culprit of coffee rust––a fungus that has wiped out coffee crops throughout the Northern Triangle. The crop is extremely sensitive to temperature variations, and, as drastic shifts in temperature become more frequent, coffee farmers who once had stable incomes are being forced across borders.
An internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection report found that crop shortages, poverty, and food insecurity were among the conditions pushing people to leave the region. However, for several months, the Trump administration froze U.S. aid that was directed at mitigating the effects of climate change in the Northern Triangle, once again working against any efforts to understand and manage migration responsibly and effectively.
Recognizing climate-related migration
First and foremost, the federal government needs to recognize that climate change is happening and that it affects vulnerable communities, requiring ambitious and comprehensive climate solutions. Migration must also be accepted as an understandable and viable adaptation strategy to environmental and climate change that can empower and protect individuals and communities as well as reduce stress on fragile environments. Overall, resources and pathways need to be in place on regional and international levels to support individuals’ right to choose to remain in their community or to move if it becomes necessary.
Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would create a humanitarian program to provide protections to migrants fleeing environmental and climate disasters. The proposed bills would require the White House to collect data on individuals displaced by climate change and report findings to Congress and the secretary of state, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development, to create a “Global Climate Resilience Strategy.” The bills are a significant step in bringing domestic awareness to the issue, and although they are unlikely to pass under the current administration, they set a needed precedent for future actions.
More so, the United States must return to climate leadership at home, regionally, and globally. Policymakers should consider increasing aid directed at mitigating the severe impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of individuals throughout the Northern Triangle.
As climate change continues to increase the likelihood and intensity of environmental disasters and degradation, more and more people will be forced to leave their homes. The factors that drive migration are inextricably linked, and environmental phenomena will only exacerbate economic and social instability. Greater recognition and acceptance of the issue on a domestic and global scale is only the beginning. Policies need to work to address climate change, mitigate its impacts, and provide protections to those affected.
Jayla Lundstrom is an intern with the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.