U.S. must recognize role of climate change in refugee influx

Recently, sympathetic media coverage of the Central American migrant “caravan” camped out at the United States-Mexico border has primarily focused on the threats of gang or state violence that forced many of the caravan members to leave their homes behind in the pursuit of safety. This approach is valuable, especially in humanizing a group of people subject to vicious racism on the part of the current U.S. administration, but it leaves out a critical factor in Central American migration: climate change.

In recent years, the northern triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) has suffered from a prolonged drought. The resulting food insecurity acts as an impediment to economic growth, exacerbates communal violence and ultimately pushes more people to migrate. In fact, according to a study by the World Food Program, nearly half of the Central American migrants described themselves as food insecure (The Guardian, “The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: climate change,” 10.30.2018).

All over the world, but especially in the Global South, people are exposed to similar environmental emergencies as are the Central American migrants. By 2050, climate change could displace 143 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, and 250 million could be displaced overall (NPR, “The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To,” 06.20.2018; Pacific Standard, “‘Not Doing Anything Is No Longer Acceptable’: A Conversation With Alice Thomas, Climate Refugee Expert,” 09.04.2018). Most will become internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their own countries, but even if only a small fraction decides to move to the Global North, their numbers will most likely eclipse those of our current refugee crisis. Unfortunately, the 1951 UN “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” does not recognize migrants displaced by climate change as refugees. So far, no refugee has successfully applied for asylum on the basis of environmental catastrophe (Pacific Standard). The closest protection available to climate refugees in the United States is temporary protected status (TPS), which the United States has extended to refugees from Central America, Haiti and other states after environmental catastrophes in addition to violent conflict. For example, many Hondurans were first granted TPS after Hurricane Mitch devastated the nation in 1998. While TPS only lasts for 18 months, recipients can renew this status without limit.

However, even this meager protection faces uncertainty under the Trump administration. In October, U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to end TPS status for refugees from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal and Sudan, even though these countries have not fully recovered from the damages caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and ethnic conflict and will be unable to reabsorb tens of thousands of deported refugees. Critics have legally challenged this decision in several states, which buys time for the refugees, but it remains unclear how much (Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc, “Challenges to TPS terminations,” 11.01.2018). The deportation of people who have been working in the United States and sending crucial remittances back to their home countries will further destabilize the nations that once benefited from TPS (USA Today, “Trump team uses new rationale to terminate TPS program for hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants,” 10.15.2018).

This shortsighted move on the part of the administration indicates that the United States is woefully unprepared to manage the climate refugee crisis on the horizon. Instead of wasting critical time and resources on deporting law-abiding people, the United States and other nations to which climate refugees will travel for safety in the future must formalize climate refugees as a legal category of refugee deserving of asylum, invest in a system that can process and integrate increased numbers of asylum-seekers and partner with developing countries to build infrastructure that will mitigate the worst impacts of environmental disasters. Earlier this year, the European Union Parliament released a report attempting to delimit the concept of the climate refugee (European Parliament Think Tank, “The concept of ‘climate refugee’: Towards a possible definition,” 05.24.2018).

The U.S. government possesses the financial means to engage in this kind of ambitious, ecologically-informed policy. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. government has increased funding for border security 14 times, resulting in four billion dollars in tax money spent annually despite illegal immigration falling to historic lows. If you want to know where we can get the money to invest in preventative projects overseas, our bloated and redundant border security is where we can start (NBC News, “The U.S. Already Spends Billions on Border Security,” 08.31.2016).

At the moment, this approach may appear politically unpalatable, but as climate refugees become increasingly difficult to ignore, addressing the root of this crisis will become all the more necessary. Rejecting the asylum of the 4,000 “caravan” members in Tijuana will not stop the waves to come.

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