Refugees claiming asylum at the southern U.S. border are fleeing a staggering set of harsh conditions, most often identified as widespread violence and persecution. While both are driving factors, Central Americans are also trying to escape the devastating effects of climate change.
According to Todd Miller, author of Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, there is an increase in hurricanes, landslides, droughts, and other natural disasters devastating enough to displace people. In an interview with Public Radio International, he relayed the conversations he’s had with small farmers in regions hit hardest:
“In the region that extends from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into Nicaragua, which is filled with many poor, small farmers who depend on seasonal rainfall, the farmers were expecting rain and there was no rain,” Miller says. “One mayor in a nearby town where these farmers are from said, ‘We are facing an unprecedented calamity.’”
A climate scientist who studies the area told Miller the drought conditions were not an anomaly, but had been occurring for 10 years and were connected to a warming globe. “So, we’re looking at a situation in Central America, which already has a number of factors that are displacing people, and we have to look at this ecological aspect to give a holistic analysis of it,” Miller says.
If industrialized countries don’t make efforts to mitigate climate change now, the problem will get much worse: The World Bank predicts that climate change will displace 143 million people by 2050, listing Central America among the three most affected regions in the world. International law doesn’t recognize climate migrants as refugees, however, meaning that people fleeing natural disasters are unlikely to be granted asylum in another country. The Nansen Initiative, a United Nations Refugee Agency project to protect communities vulnerable to climate change, found in a 2014 report that El Salvador is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and a predicted increase in rainfall, heat waves, and drought, will lead to displacement.
The United States, of course, isn’t particularly interested in all that. Trump, who believes that climate change is a “hoax” created by the Chinese, has been consistently rolling back climate protections in the U.S. and pulling out of America’s responsibilities abroad. Meanwhile, his administration continues to criminalize migrants attempting to seek asylum.
There is some reason for optimism. “We have a small window now, before the effects of climate change deepen, to prepare the ground for this new reality,” said World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. “Steps cities take to cope with the upward trend of arrivals from rural areas and to improve opportunities for education, training and jobs will pay long-term dividends.” Global initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve local infrastructure and planning could reduce the number of displaced people by 80 percent.