What Role does Climate Change Play in the Central American Migration Crisis?

Migration from northern Central America has been ongoing for years due to several deeply entrenched and compounding problems. Climate change, however, is currently on the minds of the Biden-Harris administration. While climate change necessitates a complex response, the administration could implement three steps today that could address the issue in the region.

Northern Central America is no stranger to climate-related disasters. Recently, two category four hurricanes, Eta and Iota, displaced thousands and caused dangerous flash floods and landslides, which destroyed homes and disrupted livelihoods from Panama to Southeastern Mexico. At the same time, the ‘dry corridor,’ which extends from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica, is prone to extreme weather patterns that have eroded the livelihoods of people in this area, particularly those that rely on rain-fed agriculture. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 3.5 million people have faced food insecurity in the past 10 years due to recurring droughts.

Climate science makes it clear that these events are the new normal.

However, while climate change may supercharge some of these natural hazards, it is rarely the only or primary factor driving migration in the region. Longstanding political, economic, and social phenomena, including violence, poverty, and government corruption also play a role.

For example, poverty and food insecurity may have been exacerbated by climate-related disaster, such as drought and hurricanes, but the COVID-19 pandemic has served to deepen both. As of March 2021, at least 2.9 million people face high levels of acute food insecurity in Honduras and this is likely to increase to up to 3.3 million in the coming months. In Guatemala, almost half the population cannot afford the basic food basket. In addition, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the world’s highest rates of violence, and gangs have been emboldened by the chaos of the pandemic and have used it to tighten their control in parts of the region.

Recent research also shows that violence and climate change may intersect to drive migration patterns from Honduras, with increasing rates of homicide and rainfall variance correlating to higher rates of migration and subsequent apprehension at the U.S. border in 2019.

These complexities mean that addressing “root causes” are difficult. However, the Biden-Harris administration can implement three simple steps today to build the foundation towards a comprehensive approach.

First, the U.S. should ramp up funding for humanitarian and development assistance, with an emphasis on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and resilience in order to build up the capacity for Central Americans to stay in the face of climate change, if they wish to do so. USAID deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the region is a good first step. However, more long-term resilience strategies can and should be channeled through Biden’s plan for Central America.

Second, given impending climate change impacts, a Biden-Harris administration must reassess the “temporary” nature of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation that allows individuals of countries affected by conflict or environmental disaster already residing in the United States to live and work in the country for a limited period of time. In some cases, slow-onset disasters — such as sea-level riseglacial melt and desertification — will be dramatic and irreversible, calling into question the ability of TPS holders to return safely to their countries of origin. The Biden-Harris administration should request that the Department of State develop a mechanism and guidelines around assessing country risk to slow-onset disasters in order to assess the viability of return for TPS holders. Once the assessment is made that certain TPS-designated countries are highly at risk to face slow-onset impacts, the administration may wish to explore possible pathways to permanent residence and citizenship for those populations.

Third, the United States should support Central American nations in creating a policy and legal framework that acknowledges internally displaced people and follows the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in affected countries. By providing a legal framework for internally displaced people, Central American governments can begin to understand the number of internally displaced and the challenges that affect them to create tailored policies.

All of the above recommendations function best if they complement and bolster one another. Without preventative and proactive measures to address climate-related displacement and support our southern neighbors, protection and resettlement options may become more salient.

Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program, and Rachel Schmidtke, advocate for Latin America, Refugees International