ALABAMA INTERFAITH REFUGEE PARTNERSHIP
According to the UNHCR , Guatemala is the country with the tenth-highest number of applications for asylum worldwide; 10% of our partner families fall into this category. Countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are also partially encroached by the “Dry Corridor.” The “Dry Corridor” is a region in Central America that consists of a tropical dry forest. For most people, placing the words “tropical” and “dry” next to each other would sound counterintuitive due to the vibrant, biodiverse connotations that precede the word “tropical” and the harsh, barren illustration that the word “dry” conjures. Both assumptions are mostly true: the “Tropical Dry Forest” of Guatemala offers the greenery and biodiversity of a tropical forest in combination with the intermittent rain cycles of a desert.
These rain cycles are growing more and more unpredictable as the years progress, lengthening their dry seasons . For many Guatemalans, farming is the main–if not the only–way to secure food for themselves and their families. In fact, many families plan for their annual farming season, a season in which their crop yields (mainly beans and corn) must last them a full calendar year . During this farming season, rainfall is supposed to be consistent enough to cultivate a proper environment for the entire farming process, from seeding to harvest. However, because of the longer dry seasons and sudden floods, many families experience the loss of their crops with some families losing up to 75% of their harvest .
Changes seen in climate, weather, and regional temperature can have dramatic impacts on communities and crops. The United Nations World Food Program reports that in January 2019, 15% of people in the Dry Corridor said they had plans of migrating due to food insecurity . This number, however, is expected to grow as the effects of climate change continue to increase globally. In fact, the “Dry Corridor” makes up 45% of Guatemala and has grown 25-30% in the past decade .
Guatemala, in conjunction with governmental and non-governmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services and the United States Department of Agriculture, has worked hard to ensure Guatemalan families can expand their resilience threshold and avoid having to leave their home country due to climatic stressors . Unfortunately, the accepted definition for refugees and asylum seekers excludes families seeking to escape the Dry Corridor due to climate stressors . Advocates have pushed the UNHCR to expand the guidelines of what makes someone a “refugee” to include those displaced due to the effects of climate change.
Greenhouse gasses (GHG) are major drivers of global climate change and contribute to the dysregulation of natural weather patterns; a process actively intensifying the conditions of the Dry Corridor . It is imperative that the world’s highest GHG emitters – the United States, China, India, and the European Union – take serious steps toward meeting the goals outlined by the Paris Agreement . As of 2022, the previously mentioned nations are responsible for more than half of historical emissions of GHG and fall short of meeting the Paris Agreement . Finally, global authorities on migration must prepare for the estimated 200 million persons that will be displaced due to climate change by 2050 if a significant reduction of GHG emissions is not achieved .
A Research Note from a Needs Assessment at the US Mexico Border: Climate Refugees
Photo of Mural by Kerry McCulloch, 2022. Caption reads: Routes traveled and destinations.
As a professor of global health at UAB, I mentor a lot of students on projects and research that deal with international and global issues. In the past year, I’ve seen a surge of interest in climate refugees and climate change. Climate refugees (sometimes referred to as climate migrants) are people who are displaced and leave their home due to an environmental disaster like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts. Climate refugee is not (yet) a legal term; it’s a scholarly term. Academics and advocates use this term to highlight the distinction from a refugee being forced to leave their home as a result of conflict versus a refugee being forced to leave their home because it was destroyed in an environmental or climate-related disaster.
Recently, I collaborated with one of our Master of Public Health Students, Kerry McCulloch, on a health needs assessment of migrant shelters at the US-Mexico border in Nogales (Sonora, Mexico). Kerry asked migrants why they had left their home and were seeking asylum in the US. The primary reasons for leaving were to escape violence, particularly criminal violence (67%) or armed conflict (58%). I also encouraged Kerry to include a few environmental reasons that people might leave their home based on research around climate refugees. A very small sub-sample emerged; just around 13% selected climate-related reasons, specifically floods, hurricanes, and landslides.
Although the numbers are small, they do highlight the fact that environmental and climate-related reasons are not distinct from conflict-related ones. Climate may be as much of a driver as political persecution is for many people seeking asylum. Climate may also be the tipping point for some people; “the last straw” so to speak. In Kerry’s study, we found some correlation and significance among these climate-related issues and family reunification, a
motivating factor for seeking asylum. In other words, some of the asylum seekers Kerry spoke with are the second wave of family members crossing the border. Maybe their spouse, sibling, or cousin had already crossed and started the legal process, and those waiting at the border plan to reunite their family while also leaving because the floods, hurricanes, and landslides are just getting to be too much.
I wanted to share this research note with ALIRP and their climate series because I really do think it’s complicated. The reasons people leave their home are complicated and, often, tragic.
We researchers need to do more to understand the role climate plays in people’s decision- making. And we, who advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, need to do more in describing the places where people come from. Where crime, corruption, and civil unrest persist, there may also be weak environmental infrastructure and regularly occurring natural disasters that make it difficult to stay and fight back or to wait it out. The distinction between conflict and disaster may not be so different as we sometimes may think it is.
Acknowledgements: ALIRP would like to thank Kerry McCulloch, MPH for sharing your photos with us and we would like to acknowledge the Sparkman Center for Global Health, Moses Sinkala Travel Scholarship which funded Kerry’s research.
UNHCR Estimates 33 Million People Were Displaced by Pakistan Floods in September
Climate change intensifies regular weather seasons. For example, when hurricane season begins, we see more intense Category 5 hurricanes rather than the historical Category 2 level hurricanes. In areas that experience regular monsoons, there are more intense rains and flooding. This was the case for Pakistan last month.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 7.6 million people have been displaced by the recent floods brought on by climate change. During the evacuations of Afghans over the past year, Pakistan welcomed many Afghan refugees into their country. So, those affected by this climate disaster included Pakistani residents and refugees. One early report by the UNHCR estimates that 1.3 million Afghan refugees are in Pakistan and over 400,000 were in the districts most hard hit, and more recent reports estimate that the number is more likely to be twice that.
When we look at the global trends for displacement, a term we use to describe people who must leave their homes and are unsure if they can return, the numbers are staggering. More and more people are being displaced, internally, by climate disasters. The Global Report on Internal Displacement published that, in 2021, 23.7 million people were displaced due to climate-related disasters versus 14.4 million people displaced from conflict and violence. Often, we hope that people can return to their homes once the weather stabilizes and the flood recedes. There is a growing concern, however, that more and more people will find it harder to return home and rebuild, making them climate refugees.
Anytime people are forced to leave the safety of their homes, it is devastating. Recognizing the role climate plays in this is essential to all of us, globally.
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