By Amali Tower
In the pursuit of addressing the ‘root causes’ of migration from Central America to the U.S. southern border, the United States is motivated by a foreign policy built on seeking to improve conditions in Central America countries. However, this policy fails to fully grasp the extreme conditions that now mark contexts of forced displacement.
The Central American Integration System (SICA) — the economic and political organization of Central American states — has expressed the need to approach forced migration through a human security and development lens, rather than a traditional hard security one, and through coordinated regional responses. SICA identifies the structural causes of migration as poverty and inequality, insufficient growth, high demographic growth in cities – with rural areas lagging, high levels of violence, a wage gap between the region and the United States, family reunification needs in the United States, and vulnerability to climate change. SICA notes that Guatemala and El Salvador, and at times Nicaragua, are among the 15 countries in the world most exposed to disasters.
Just two weeks apart, last November twin Hurricanes Eta and Iota, category 4 and 5 respectively, struck the same region, devastating parts of Central America, with Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua worst hit and impacting over 4 million people. In Guatemala alone, 40 percent of subsistence agriculture was affected; 80 percent of basic staples like maize and beans were devastated. This means food insecurity, already high from years of drought, was made worse. 2020 was the most active year for storms in this volatile region. All of which is exacerbated by poverty and economic inequality.
Extractive industries, along with mega projects like hydroelectric plants, dams and mines, have caused environmental damage, even diverting, flooding and contaminating rivers.
My organization, Climate Refugees, has spoken to asylum seekers awaiting crossing at the U.S./Mexico border, who have told us they have been forced to send money to help family and community members whose lives have been devastated by the storms, underscoring how extreme the conditions are back home.
Somewhat lost in all this is that many of the Central American migrants at the U.S. border are rural and Indigenous Peoples, historically oppressed and marginalized by development policies, land grabs, expulsions, and disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, who have been on the move internally and across borders for several years.
A deeper understanding of this complex human rights situation in parts of Central America and its connections to development policies, killings of environmental leaders, climate change and forced migration is needed in order to better respond to this population’s asylum and refugee needs in a predictive way.
Regional Converging Risks: By the Numbers
Along with traditional asylum and refugee situations of localized violence and persecution that force many Central Americans to U.S. borders, extreme conditions in weather, destruction to local economies and loss of local habitat and biodiversity, have converged in forced movements seen in neighboring countries and, in larger numbers, internally. These dynamics have been characterized by a lack of land, loss of lands, failed crops, climate extremes, rising food insecurity, poverty, and a history of marginalization.
Beginning in FY2012, U.S. border apprehensions revealed increased arrivals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and by FY2018, migrants from Northern Triangle countries comprised 52 percent of all apprehensions. During this time period, the type of migrants also shifted from young males to families and unaccompanied children.
UNDP estimates 265,000 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have left for the United States since 2014. A growing number are women and children, and one out of five succeed, while 80 percent are stopped by Mexican or U.S. authorities. Still others find themselves stranded, where community tensions are increasingly escalating. Data between 2000-2010 indicate migrants from northern Central America (NCA) increased by an average of 59 percent, and immigrants detained by U.S. authorities increased from 50,000 to over 400,000 in 2016. Honduras, alone, saw a 94 percent increase in out-migration.
A majority of migrants come to the U.S. southern border from Central America’s Dry Corridor (CADC), the economic backbone of the region, comprising approximately 30 percent of Central America. The CADC is the most densely populated area of the region and home to a number of Indigenous groups. It is also a region with another type of convergence – one where extreme climatic events like prolonged droughts (2014-2017), a coffee rust outbreak, and climate-induced disasters have seriously exacerbated social, economic, environmental and political vulnerabilities
In part due to sustained drought exacerbated by a changing climate, Guatemala and Honduras ranked 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in Central America and the Caribbean, on the 2018 Global Hunger Index, and have measured persistent food insecurity levels since. Subsistence farming, social fractures and climate events are documented in deep food insecurity, where the World Food Program (WFP) and FAO say 1.4 million people are in urgent need of food assistance after crop loss due to rainfall and drought, and where 30 percent of migrants in affected areas cited climate-induced lack of food as reason for emigration. A 2017 World Food Program study of NCA migrants rejected by Mexican immigration when trying to reach the United States, found 50 percent had been working in the agricultural sector.
For subsistence farmers, economic and social mobility have been hindered by historic exclusion, inequality of land tenure, and poverty, leading to underdevelopment, while land and natural resources have made way for public and private investments in mega-development projects and extractive industries in mining, agrobusiness, energy, tourism, and infrastructure. As much as 90 percent of these development projects are on Indigenous lands, according to the Human Rights Watch expert interviewed in our report linked below.
A shocking 40 percent of people in Central America live below the poverty line, and 10 percent of the regional economy is dependent on climate-sensitive sectors like small-scale and subsistence farming. Poverty rates are especially high in Honduras and Guatemala, 74 percent and 68 percent, respectively, and rural poverty is 10 percent higher in each country. So, while there are a number of factors driving migration in the region, it cannot be denied that the convergence of underdevelopment and intensifying climate change conditions is a serious one. In rural areas in particular, extreme vulnerability to climate events combines with poverty to destroy the livelihoods of millions of people.
Misunderstanding of Migrants and Terminology
Many Central American cases within the U.S. immigration and asylum systems converge with legitimate asylum claims, especially those cases concerning Indigenous People, who can very well make valid persecution claims on the basis of race. Already such U.S. cases exist where Central American Indigenous migrants have successfully sought asylum, while also fleeing situations driven by climate change.
It is equally important to understand that many asylum seekers may unwittingly weaken their asylum claims because they are afraid to identify as Indigenous due to a long historic record of oppression and documented massacres. Data and programs directed at Indigenous groups are lacking in this region but human rights researchers know of at least six Indigenous groups in Honduras, and over 30 in Guatemala, the majority of whom reside in the Dry Corridor region.
There is also the real security threat of undermining U.S. rule of law by forcibly returning asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch has found that in some cases, Salvadoran asylum seekers forcibly returned by the United States were killed, tortured and/or became victims of gross human rights violations. In the face of this, there is the real risk that insecurity lies in foreign perceptions of the United States, with its policies seen unfavorably by other countries as climate and migrant injustice.
A lack of understanding has also led to defining and returning climate-driven migrants as “economic migrants” – a classification lacking any basis in international law. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are all classified as middle-income countries, determined by per capita GDP, which does not accurately reflect the large rural population living below the poverty line and without basic care. In terms of international protection, the high rates of poverty, now compounded by climate change effects on livelihoods, fails to take into account the historic exclusion Indigenous groups suffer.
The Way Forward: A Humanitarian Framework
A deeper understanding of Central America will reflect the interconnections between climate change, historic oppression of Indigenous Peoples, the ways in which people are losing access and being moved off their lands, specific industries, and direct or indirect drivers of conflict and violence by gangs now redirected into some of these extractive industries.
An international protection framework exists to review individuals from northern Central America countries at U.S. borders, within the United States, or in transit, that are categorized as migrants or asylum-seekers, and, when applicable, to offer protection and resettlement.
If the United States leads with a humanitarian response to migration from the region, with an emphasis on human rather than hard security, it could incentivize other countries into global cooperation in building a just and humane migration policy that shifts the focus from “burden sharing” to “common but differentiated responsibilities, as accepted by developed countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).”
Because migrants have been miscast as a security problem themselves, rather than as people suffering a human security crisis that should be addressed humanely, coordinated policy between the US Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security is needed to address the backlog of asylum cases in the current system, turn the tide on the high rates of deportations, many of which lack fair due process, and for the US government to create a predictive and anticipated quota of asylum and refugee cases.
Climate Refugees has offered key approaches and recommendations to the Biden administration and directly to key U.S. agencies in response to President Biden’s Executive Order on planning for the impacts of climate change on migration.
For more details on our approach, please see our full report here: Climate Change, Forced Displacement, Peace and Security.
Also see our policy brief: Climate Refugees Policy Recommendations to U.S. Government Agencies on Climate Displacement.
Amali Tower is the Founder | Executive Director of Climate Refugees, a human rights organization that calls for the protection and rights of those displaced by climate change. She is a Member of the World Economic Forum and its Expert Network in Migration, Human Rights and Humanitarian Response. Previously she worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and various NGOs in the humanitarian sector, including the US Refugee Admissions Program administered by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.