Climate Migration in Latin America: A Future ‘Flood of Refugees’ to the North?

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This Council on Hemispheric Affairs research paper, by COHA Research Fellow Alexandra Deprez, has been under preparation for a year. In it, she brilliantly synthesizes current developments regarding environmentally-driven human migration –and more specifically, migration caused by the environmental manifestations of anthropogenic climate change– which are capable of exposing their potential harmful effects in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Although this region has received far less media attention and academic focus than Western Africa, South East Asia or the Pacific Islands, it certainly houses the climate and non-climate factors that could cause mass human displacement as a result of a strategy threat to the safety and welfare of a strategic threat to the safety and welfare of affected areas of sizable parts of the world.

The first section introduces the concept of environmentally-induced migration, expounding upon the current state of the debate surrounding it and the challenges it faces. This is followed by an examination of different climate processes and natural disasters as drivers of migration in Latin America. It also addresses non-climate factors such as poor governance, poverty, overpopulation, and unequal land distribution that can compound these migratory pressures.

The second section opens with a case study of Mexico, a country several reports have identified as a potential hotspot for environmentally-induced migration in Latin America, due to the confluence of climate and non-climate migration factors it houses. The relevance of this study is also increased due to Mexico’s position as the largest immigration feeder to the United States. The segment goes on to discuss larger developmental impacts of environmentally-induced migration in Latin America –such as the effects on regions of origin and destination, the health and security issues migrants face, and the debate between environment, migration and national security factors– before ending with a speculation of which potential actions the United States might eventually take to address what could be a looming problem.


PART 1: Environmentally Induced Migration in Latin America and Beyond;

Climate and Non Climate Drivers of Migration in Latin America

Typhoon Morakot, the unusually strong tropical storm that hit South East Asia in mid-August 2009, displacing more than 1.5 million people in China alone, is only one of the most recent natural disasters that raise questions about environmental change and its link to migration. This link has increasingly attracted attention over the past few years, in particular since 2007, when the 4th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report confirmed that human migration would be one of the most important consequences of anthropogenic climate change. The manifestations of environmental change derived from human activities notably include sea level rise (SLR), intensified drought or rainfall, and the increasing attracted recurrence and strength of natural hazards such as hurricanes.1 Although estimates vary widely and their reliability are questioned by migration experts, the frequently quoted figure of 200 million environmental displacees by 2050 testifies to this phenomenon’s looming importance. The developmental charity, Christian Aid, has increased its figure of estimated victims to a catastrophic 1 billion by mid-century.2

Policy and non-profit actors’ increasing awareness of environmentally-induced migration coincides with recent scientific confirmations that not only is anthropogenic climate change bound to occur no matter what mitigation steps are taken, but moreover it will prove more drastic than previously predicted.3 A paradigm shift in the policy response to climate change –from an exclusive focus on its prevention to a greater importance given to adaptation strategies, which may, inevitably, include migration itself– is a necessary consequence to this state of affairs.

Despite the recent spike of interest in the past few years, human populations have long employed environmentally-induced migration as a coping strategy – with studies indicating that it was commonplace in ancient societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia.4 Although the frequently used term ‘environmental refugee’ was first coined more than three decades ago,5 international organizations and scholars have still not reached a consensus on how to define those populations who migrate by choice or necessity due to environmental modifications in their regions of origin. Divergent expressions such as “environmentally induced migrant,”6 “environmentally displaced person,”7 “climate refugee,”8 or “climate migrant”9 populate international migration reports and journal articles. Most definitions place particular emphasis on those environmental processes and events that may arise or are intensified due to anthropogenic climate change, while broader terms also tend to take into account environmental modifications such as earthquakes, which are less directly related to human activity. In his seminal 1985 definition, Professor Essam el Hinnawi includes case specific human events that may have an impact on the environment – such as large-scale development projects, industrial accidents, and conflicts. He describes environmental refugees as:

“Those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.”10

Although el Hinnawi’s definition would designate Haitian victims of the January 12, 2010 earthquake as potential environmental refugees, the Haiti case deserves to be addressed in literature exclusively devoted to it. This COHA research memorandum instead will adopt a narrower definition of environmentally induced migration, emphasizing those environmental events and processes which have been linked to anthropomorphic climate change, as well as natural and man-induced land degradation, which holds a particular historic importance in Latin America.

As manifested by the lack of a universal definition and the large variation between predictions, the debate over environmental change (and more particularly climate change) and migration is still at an embryonic phase, riddled with complexities, unknowns, and diverse actors that have yet to work in a more interdisciplinary, cooperative fashion.11 Predictions of extensive migration may have been publicized by environmental scientists like Norman Myers, with the intention of raising awareness and promoting action against climate change, as well as by human rights organizations that jumped at the opportunity to advocate protection for these potential new victims.12 However, these large-scale ominous predictions have also alarmed Western policymakers that a new “flood of refugees”13 would add to the migratory and asylum pressures their countries already face and have been seeking to manage and contain. Reports on different aspects of environmentally induced migration that have been prolifically produced over the past few years by international organisms such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), further demonstrate the heightened importance recently placed upon these issues.

Nonetheless, the recent hype surrounding climate migration may seem disproportionate to the limited amount of visible victims, particularly in light of the sometimes-sparse attention given to many other issues at the forefront of the international migration and refugee organisms’ agendas.14 Although the present number of individuals who fall directly into the category of ‘climate’ migrants or refugees15 might be dwarfed by the large number of international migrants, the UNHCR estimated that in 2002, 24 million individuals around the world were displaced due to natural disasters,16 a figure nearly double that of the current amount of refugees, estimated above 15 million.17 This fact attests to the veritable potential that anthropogenic climate change has in inducing large-scale population displacements, while the numerous legal, developmental and humanitarian consequences of these potential movements underscore the issue’s importance and the urgent attention which it merits.

But what are the implications for Latin America?

Specialists and scholars have determined that environmentally induced migration initially will take place in developing regions around the globe, with South-East Asia, West Africa and low-lying islands being particularly at risk.18 Even though the impact climate change may have on migration in Latin America is rarely mentioned and has yet to be exclusively studied in depth, this region bears a combination of factors that may converge to give rise to ‘hot spots’ for mass population movements. Indeed, not only is it host to a number of environmental processes and events that will most likely be intensified and accelerated due to anthropogenic climate change, but it also possesses conditions such as poverty and an unequal geographical distribution of the population that heighten their vulnerability to these effects, thus compounding the migratory potential.

Predictions of environmentally-induced migration concur that the majority of cases will occur within the same state or region. But, with such well-established migration channels between most Latin American countries and the United States, it is plausible that the manifestations of climate change may have an increasingly stronger impact on South-North human flows in the Western hemisphere. Developed nations such as the United States hold a responsibility vis-à-vis the anthropogenic climate change their industrial activities helped engender, as well as the economic conditions that may have contributed to perpetuate an unequal geographical distribution of the population in Latin America. However, the United States’ present migration policy does not give significant consideration to environmental factors, and this is clearly not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, this COHA memorandum seeks to raise awareness of an issue that Western policymakers –and particularly North American policymakers– might one day not have the luxury to continue to ignore.

The current state of the debate over environmentally induced migration

The first and basic point of contention in this debate is how to characterize those affected by environmental change: are they migrants or refugees? The expression ‘environmental refugees’ was first used in the 1970s as a way to depoliticize the displacement of populations within their own country –due, for example, to famines or droughts– prior to the introduction of the term Internally Displaced Person (IDP) in 1998.19 Today, some human rights organizations have reclaimed it as a way to point to the urgency of addressing the issue and providing aid to those mobilized by environmental change. However, it has encountered strong opposition from practically all other actors involved in the debate.

Roger Zetter, the director of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at Oxford University, notes that the use of ‘refugee’ here is problematic, “not least for its conceptual inadequacy in interpreting the complex structural causes and consequences of flight.”20 It is also legally incorrect, as ‘environmental persecution’ – to term it that way – is not part of the 5 causes of persecution included in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Using the expression ‘environmental refugee’ may also strongly undermine the scale of the problem at hand as it only refers to those forced to leave their country, thus failing to include the numerous individuals affected by climate change who either have been displaced within their own country or who choose to migrate abroad.21 Western governments are certainly not keen to expand the UN’s definition, for fear that this would exponentially raise the number of asylum applicants to their countries, while refugee specialists oppose the inclusion of the environment as a cause of persecution, predicting it would place unnecessary stress on already strained resources devoted to those fleeing their countries from racial, religious, gender, membership of a particular social group, or political discrimination.22

Other terms have been proposed, but with little overall success, and the UN is still in the process of agreeing on a “phraseology to describe the phenomenon.”23 ‘Environmental migrant’ raises opposition due to its negative implication that those people who are moving are doing so solely out of their own will, while more conciliatory terms, such as ‘environmentally displaced person’ may be criticized by some for being too broad to be of any use. In particular, RSC’s report favored the tripartite definition proposed by Fabrice Renaud – an academic official at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) – composed of “environmentally motivated migrants,” “environmentally forced migrants,” and “environmental refugees.”24 What is certain is that no matter what designation is used, until it is given legal authority, individuals currently displaced by natural disasters and environmental degradation, as well as the future victims of ‘climate migration’ will continue to “fall through the cracks” of international protection and aid distribution.25

The second argument centers on the validity of environmentally-induced migration as a phenomenon. Some scholars have gone as far as to affirm that there is no such thing as environmentally-induced migration and that all migration is necessarily motivated by other reasons. Nonetheless, the description of human displacement presented by Stephen Castles – director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford – as comprising “complex patterns of multiple causality, in which natural and environmental factors are closely linked to economic, social, and political ones,”26 seems to embody the emphasis that has been placed on multi-causality in this ongoing debate. Although there may be relatively limited instances in which environmental change can be seen as the only factor of human displacement – such as when people are forced to leave their homes due to a natural disaster – it is most certainly already influencing an ever larger number of migration cases, and has the potential to induce further unprecedented migration in decades to come.

However, determining the degree of environmental factors in migratory movements, and separating it from other factors, has proven challenging. This difficulty, as well as the lack of a formal definition of the phenomenon that would help delineate which causes would be permissibly included in data collection and future predictions, only hint at the problems inherent in undertaking these measuring processes. Another complication is the lack of reliable and current figures, which must be placed in context with the current situation of data collection in migratory flows at large. Unlike with the populations defined as refugees, for whom the UNHCR produces annual figures, precise data on the extent of international migration worldwide is much more complicated to compile.

According to Hiroyuki Tanaka, research assistant at the Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute, “many industrialized economies don’t collect data on immigration, and those that do, collect data in different ways and apply different definitions for ‘immigrant.’ Reliable comparative data is very hard to come across, given the limited government data we have access to.”27 The fact that up to 50 percent of migration may be irregular (term preferred to ‘illegal’ by migration specialists) further complicates measurement intents.28 Internal displacements of populations remain even less documented, as many countries either do not want to publish these figures or simply lack the capacity to collect them.29

Additional difficulties have also been encountered by attempts to predict the future impact of climate change on migration. The areas – and consequently the populations – at risk vary widely depending on which climate models are used, and there is great uncertainty as to which model will most accurately represent future reality.30 There has also been a tendency to directly equate the number of those populations who will be affected to those who will migrate; this clearly does not take into account the extensive amount of other adaptive measures those populations may instead choose to take.31 However, despite widely varying in number, recent predictions seem to concur that future environmentally induced migration will primarily take place internally, in developing countries, and be mostly temporal in nature.

Better collection of data and the increased accuracy of future predictions are very important to appropriately address environmentally induced migration. This has been rightfully sensed by agencies such as the IOM, who in 2008 released a 100-page report on ways to improve those methodologies currently used.32 However, over the past few years there has been a general shift from a focus on global numerical predictions toward a more empirically based approach. This approach notably emphasizes the analysis, mapping, and monitoring of migration ‘hotspots,’ located at areas of convergence between environmental and non-environmental migration drivers. Although still approximate at best, the RSC states that, “a focused mapping program, which could be conducted by national agencies, is the key to more accurate prediction of the nature, scale and time-scale of environmentally-induced migration crises in the making, and how these might be mitigated.”33

Climate processes and natural disasters as drivers of migration in Latin America: drought, sea level rise, melting glaciers and hurricanes

Anthropogenic climate change will in part predictably manifest itself discretely, through an intensification of environmental processes such as drought, sea level rise and the melting of glaciers. Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, are not spared from any of these natural phenomena. Climate change will modify rain patterns geographically and temporally, inducing a shift in the start of rainy seasons as well as an increase of precipitation in some temperate areas, and a decrease in other regions, particularly in the tropics. This decline in rainfall may produce an intensification of aridity and a more recurrent drought with a capacity to negatively impact crop yields.34

The exact impact of severe drought on migration has not yet been satisfactorily determined. Sabine Perch-Nielsen, Michèle Bättig and Dieter Imboden, who undertook an in-depth analysis of the link between different climate processes and human displacement, explain that drought is the “most complex and least understood natural hazard,” and that there are a number of adaptive measures households might take before recurring to migration.35

Notwithstanding, new research suggests that the likelihood of migration as an adaptive measure is higher in response to certain selective environmental phenomena, such as droughts. In 2005, the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that the third of the global population that lives in areas already suffering from aridity is most vulnerable to the effects of increased drought.36 Indeed, empirical examples indicate that out-migration is already occurring in some regions affected by it. Northern Mexico, where 60 percent of arid or semi-arid land suffers from erosion, has over the past few decades seen a decrease in precipitation that has been projected to steadily worsen.37 The United Nations University’s (UNU) influential June 2009 report Control, Adapt or Flee: How to Face Environmental Migration stated, “based on Mexican Government’s data, approximately 900,000 people left arid and semi-arid areas every year [since the mid 1990s] in part because of their inability to make a living from the land due to excessively dry conditions and soil erosion.”38 Another salient example of the effect of drought on migration in Latin America may be found in Northeastern Brazil. In this primarily agricultural region, spikes in out-migration to the country’s southern regions have been observed following decreases in crop yields during years that suffered from severe droughts.39

Another environmental process that will be intensified by anthropogenic climate change is sea level rise (SLR); differing streams of predictions have posited a change of 50 cm to 1.5 meters by the end of the 21st century. It has been widely assumed to be the ‘climate-process’ with the strongest and most direct push effect on migration. In their Climatic Change article, Perch-Nielsen, Bättig, and Imboden agreed that although the current amount of information available is insufficient to reach a fairly accurate prediction, “the potential extent of migration due to sea level rise is large.”40 Even though the greatest impact is sure to be felt in the very densely populated coasts of South East Asia, media coverage has been almost exclusively been placed upon the fate of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean. One such island is Tuvalu, where, due to fears of SLR, almost 30 percent of the population has already migrated to New Zealand.41

Although drawing practically no press coverage, several Caribbean islands are also at risk of being partially or completely submerged.42 In absolute terms, the number of potential victims of SLR in the Caribbean may pale in comparison to that in South East Asia. However, as more than 50 percent of the islands’ inhabitants live less than 1.5 km inland from the coast, the relative impact of SLR on the Caribbean population has the potential to be strongly felt.43 But specific predictions researching the future of the SLR in this region – as well as on most of the coastlines of Latin America – and its impact on migration up to now are sparse. The European Commission’s Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios (EACH-FOR) Project, which has started to map the regions most likely to be affected, has currently undertaken only one case study in the this region – on the island of Hispaniola – with an exclusive focus on deforestation.44

The melting of glaciers is a third process that has been taking place since the industrial revolution, and due to the ever increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it will continue to occur at an accelerated pace. In South America, this translates into concerns about how the Andes Mountain range may now be seeing a reduction of water availability for agricultural and personal consumption, as well as an increased risk of fires during the dry season,45 and a change in rain patterns, all of which could provoke greater flooding during the rainy season.46

The Argentine EACH-FOR case study, which partially focuses on the pre-Andean regions of Patagonia and Cuyo, remarked that while a few years ago the two regions were still the sites of incoming migration, they have now started to experience emigration flows linked to justified environmental fears.47 Reduction of water availability is of particular relevance and concern in this region, as it may place even greater economic pressures on the poorer sectors of society, who already have been strongly affected by the wave of provocative water privatizations which have swept over the continent during the past twenty years.48 In short, these economic pressures are likely to translate into stronger migratory impulses.

Climate change is also being manifested through the intensification and increased recurrence of certain natural hazards. Natural disasters – those natural acts of devastation that have intersected infrastructure and human settlements – reportedly have been on the rise over the past decades.49 From 1980 to 2000, inhabitants of developing countries accounted for more than 95 percent of all of those who lost their houses in natural disasters.50 The extremely disproportionate impact that these events have had on the world’s developing regions may be explained by the much higher vulnerability they face in comparison to Western nations. Not only are the tropics –where most of the developing regions are located – at higher risk of experiencing natural hazards, but a combination of political, economic and social factors lower their populations’ resiliency and capacity to respond effectively to these disasters.

Although examples of lack of risk preparation and disaster response can be found in industrialized nations (Hurricane Katrina comes most quickly to mind), these characteristics are significantly more common and recurrent in developing countries. Undeniably, an environmental event of the same scale will have a higher humanitarian cost – and consequently a potential damaging migratory impact – in the latter. The situation of disaster prevention and relief in Central America, where hundreds of thousands of people are periodically left homeless during the hurricane season, may serve as an illustration of the normally low capacity of response present in areas of Latin America. Costa Rica’s disaster response plan, which offered an only somewhat acceptable response to the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit its Central Valley in January 2009, is indeed considered the best in the region.51 Unacceptable delays and insufficient responses, such as those given by ex-president Manuel Zelaya when he declared a state of emergency three weeks after Honduras was shaken by a 7.1 earthquake in June 2009, are much more common in the isthmus. Of course, these examples are now slighted by the incomparable catastrophe the poorest country in the Western hemisphere has been suffering following the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital on January 12, 2010, incurring a death toll of over 200,00052 and the damage or destruction of almost 300,000 residences and commercial buildings.53

An article published in the August 2009 issue of the scientific journal Nature strongly supported the theory that as the oceans’ temperature continues to rise due to climate change, tropical storms will become increasingly recurrent and potent.54 This trend was particularly noted in the Caribbean basin, the region most strongly affected by hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. Studies of the region’s past hurricanes and their responses, particularly in Mexico, indicate that the vast majority of the populations who suffered from the events – and thus those who might have been displaced – intended to remain in their homeland or to return as soon as possible. Although predictions posit that migration will continue to be mostly temporal and internal, it is reasonable to presume that as hurricanes hit the Caribbean with more frequency and strength, households that have repeatedly suffered from these events may increasingly consider permanent or international migration as an adaptation strategy.55 The latter option may be facilitated by the existence of strong migration ties and networks between Latin American countries and the U.S.

Non-climate drivers and the question of unequal land distribution in Latin America

The largest amount of climate migration is most likely to be concentrated in areas where ‘non-environmental’ factors – such as poor governance, political persecution, population pressures, and poverty – are already present and exercise migratory pressures on the local populations. The authors of the RSC’s report assimilate the conjunction of poor governance or political persecution and environmental migration to Amartya Sen’s famous adage that famines are not bound to occur in a democracy.56 Similarly, environmental changes should not induce mass migrations in a country that has an accountable and responsive government.

At the interface of climate and non-climate drivers, UNU’s June 2009 report In Search of Shelter asserts that the loss of ‘ecosystem services’ such as arable soil, clean air, and water, will be the principal cause of mass environmental migration.57 Specialists argue that as climate change – in conjunction with unsustainable human usages and population pressures – starts to overwhelm an ecosystem, it will progressively become less capable to provide ‘its services.’58 Those populations mostly dependent on these ‘services’ for their livelihood – such as farmers, who could suffer from reductions in crop yield s– will be harshly affected by these changes, making them more likely to choose migration or be obligated to resort to it as an ultimate adaptive option.59

General economic pressures, as well as a lack of natural hazard risk assessments and zoning laws, may push those less fortunate populations onto marginal areas, as happened in the case of Typhoon Marakot, and its particularly strong effect on Taiwan’s rural poor. Incidentally, these marginal lands may be at greater risk of suffering from natural hazards as floods or mudslides. But, in a region such as Latin America where, in addition to current economic forces, historical factors have also fatefully contributed to these displacements, it becomes necessary to analyze and include the population’s geographical distribution in this region’s future debate of environmentally-prompted – and more specifically – climate migration.

In his article Roots of Flight: Environmental Refugees in Latin America, York University Professor Andil Gosine explains the processes that forced indigenous populations and small farmers from the rich arable valleys onto marginal arid or mountainous lands, often putting such areas at greater risk of suffering from climate processes or events.60 The arrival of European ‘Conquistadores’ to Latin America marked the installation of a very unequal land tenure system, visible to this day in countries such as Nicaragua, where in 2003 less than 25 percent of the rural population owned almost 85 percent of the country’s land.61 The capitalist systems established in many Latin American countries in the 19th century, exerted economic pressures on the region to produce monocultures for export. According to Gosine, this trend, that was further emphasized by the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) infamous Structural Adjustment Plans of the 1960s – which strongly supported the production of cash crops – has served to perpetuate until the present day an unequal geographical distribution of the population.62

Relegated to less productive lands, small farmers in Latin America face undeniable economic hardships as their produce customarily has to compete against strongly subsidized American and European agricultural goods. The migratory pressures already in place due to these hardships will most likely be cemented by climate change, and the inequality in land distribution only further underscores the disproportionate influence it is bound to have on the poorer sectors of Latin American society.

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References to this article can be found by clicking here.