Monday, May 10, 2021

Shelter from the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle

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Shelter from the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle is an April 2021 report from the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, the Harvard Law School Immigration Project, the University Network for Human Rights, the Yale Immigrant Justice Project, and the Yale Environmental Law Association. The report is 64 pages, double spaced, with more than 20 pages of end notes.

Here is the executive summary (with end notes omitted; emphasis in original):

The planet is experiencing climate change. The most recent decade has been the warmest ever recorded. Indeed, we have already surpassed the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide considered safe by the most esteemed scientists in the field. As the impacts of climate change continue to be felt around the world, experts predict that climate change will lead to massive movements of people within and across borders, including into the United States. Experts estimate that climate change could displace over 200 million people by 2050. Extreme weather events, climate-related disasters, gradual environmental degradation, sinking coastal zones, and sea level rise will continue to amplify existing stressors and contribute to internal and cross- border movement by rendering currently inhabited parts of the world less habitable.

The Northern Triangle—the area that includes Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras— is among the world’s most vulnerable regions. Due to their geographic location and widespread socio-economic inequality, Northern Triangle countries are highly vulnerable to climate-related impacts. Studies identify food insecurity, recurring droughts, decline in agricultural production, increased susceptibility to disease, and water scarcity as main drivers of climate displacement. Overall disruptions in the climate system result in significant economic losses for smallholder farmers, including those producing coffee, corn, and beans. Soil degradation, accelerated by a changing climate, will also likely contribute to displacement, as it already has in Guatemala. Meanwhile, coastal areas face an increase in sea level rise and destruction of local mangrove ecosystems, which threaten communities that depend on fishing.

Last year, Hurricanes Iota and Eta ravaged the Northern Triangle region, causing massive flooding and rain. The convergence of the hurricanes’ impact, the COVID-19 pandemic, and pre-existing socioeconomic vulnerabilities are expected to worsen food insecurity due to extensive impacts on agriculture, livestock, and rural livelihoods, in addition to the threat that vector-borne diseases pose to human health in the aftermath of the storm. These impacts will contribute to the already deteriorating environmental situation that is driving people from their homes into urban centers and towards the United States. Experts project that climate change will displace up to 3.9 million people across Mexico and Central America by 2050.

In recent years, migration from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has also increased significantly as a result of gender-based and gang violence, as well as economic and political instability, among other factors. An unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied minors have been forced to flee their homes and seek asylum in the United States.

The long history of U.S. military intervention, drug enforcement, and counterinsurgency policies in Central America has contributed greatly to the destabilization of governments in the region, adversely affecting their ability to respond to climate and other conditions. Deepening economic inequality and ongoing violence stemming from this long history of U.S. intervention has upended the lives of many people in the region.

As one of the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States has disproportionately contributed to the world’s climate crisis. Thus, the United States must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help fund climate change adaptation measures for highly vulnerable countries. In addition, we must improve our current migration policies to ensure that those who must migrate can do so with security and dignity.

The United States bears a special responsibility to the region, given its role in creating and fomenting violence there. The United States government has ignored its own research findings and opted for a law enforcement approach to curb migration flows. While the Biden Administration has taken steps in the right direction by requiring several agencies to prepare a report on climate change and its impact on migration, much more is needed to properly tackle this complex issue.

This white paper examines the large-scale ongoing and future migration of residents of the Northern Triangle. It considers the protections, under U.S. law and international refugee law, afforded those fleeing environmental disaster. First, this paper analyzes the impacts of climate change on migration. Second, the paper focuses on climate change in the Northern Triangle region and its relationship to current and future migration flows. Third, the paper addresses the increasing recognition of the relevance of refugee protection for many people affected by climate change. The paper then surveys other provisions in U.S. law that provide avenues for status and protection for those displaced by climate change. Finally, the paper charts a course forward, recommending legislative and administrative measures that would ensure greater protection for those who flee environmental disaster.

In summary, the paper seeks to move current immigration law and policy in a more sensible and humane direction, focusing on how climate change impacts migration, particularly from the Northern Triangle.

Following this executive summary, the report offers general recommendations, provides an introduction to climate change displacement, discusses climate change and the Northern Triangle, examines existing legal avenues for immigration relief, returns to recommendations, and then concludes.


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