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Climate change plays a huge role in driving displacement and exacerbates other threats, forcing people to seek safety across borders. | EFE

Unbearable Heat: Climate Displacement and Hardened Borders in the Americas

Instead of restrictive policies that further endanger people seeking asylum or refuge due to climate change and the violence unleashed by this phenomenon, governments in the Americas must establish pathways for displaced individuals, who often belong to marginalized communities, to find safety.

Por: February 20, 2024

By Julia Neusner

Ricardo never wanted to leave his home in southern Mexico, where his family had lived for generations. But after rainstorms destroyed Ricardo’s house and business, his family fell into extreme poverty. “Everything was destroyed. We were left with practically nothing,” Ricardo recounted as I spoke with him in a migrant shelter at the U.S.-Mexico border, where he and his family were awaiting the opportunity to seek U.S. asylum. As Ricardo struggled to rebuild his home and the small shop his family operated after the storms, unprecedented heat waves forced him to close the business for weeks at a time. “Temperatures have been double what they were in previous years,” he explained. “There were dust storms and a period of drought like nothing we had ever seen before in this town. It affected us a lot because we couldn’t go to work, be outside in the streets, or even sleep at night. The heat was unbearable.” In May 2022, Ricardo had to close his family’s shop for more than two weeks due to extreme heat conditions. 

At the same time, the gang controlling the region continued to demand extortion payments from Ricardo’s family. “You have to pay them, whether you’re working or not,” he said. When Ricardo failed to pay the gang extortion fees he could not afford, gang members robbed his business. Still unsatisfied with the family’s inability to pay, gang members continued to threaten the family with violence. After gang members beat Ricardo and threatened to kidnap one of his children, the family fled. 

Ricardo is one of many individuals who told us that climate change and climate-related disasters contributed to their decisions to flee their homes, as we detail in our report, “Climate of Coercion: Environmental and Other Drivers of Cross-Border Displacement in Central America and Mexico” (a joint publication from Human Security Initiative, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and the International Refugee Assistance Project) . In early 2023, our research team interviewed 38 Mexican and Central American individuals intending to seek U.S. asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Twenty-one individuals reported that the effects of climate change exacerbated the harm they fled, including by driving their families into poverty, increasing the influence of violent organized criminal groups, and heightening rates of illegal land dispossession. 

Impacts of human mobility associated to climate change

As the experience of Ricardo’s family demonstrates, climate change impacts intersect with and exacerbate targeted violence, conflict, and other forms of persecution that drive people to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek safety. These impacts disproportionately impact poor, indigenous, and other marginalized communities who have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Although most of those displaced due to climate factors move internally, climate impacts often converge with other factors that compel people to cross borders to seek safety. However, the United States (the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter) and other governments in the region are responding with increasingly militarized borders and pushback policies designed to further restrict access to asylum. To protect people displaced in the context of climate change, governments in the Americas must end border pushback policies and uphold their international refugee protection obligations. As rising temperatures and changing weather patterns drive displacement around the world with a disproportionate impact on marginalized populations facing other structural challenges, governments must do more to protect people seeking safety.

In Central America and Mexico, the impacts of climate change have exacerbated the vulnerability of marginalized communities. Central America has experienced more frequent and intense storms, floods, droughts, and other abnormal weather patterns. In the area referred to as the “Dry Corridor,” stretching from Guatemala to Nicaragua, rural communities that rely on agriculture face heightened risks associated with climate change. Prolonged periods of drought followed by intense rainfall and floods jeopardize economic activity and food security in these regions. Mexico has also been impacted by severe drought conditions across rural areas, as well as intensifying tropical cyclones resulting from warming temperatures. Scientists warn that rising heat and humidity may render areas along the Gulf of California and the southern Gulf of Mexico uninhabitable in the coming decades.

The effects of climate change have driven families into poverty by undermining their ability to support themselves. Ricardo’s family was one of many asylum seekers we interviewed who said that within the past three years, increasingly frequent climate-related disasters interfered with their ability to make a living in their countries of origin. Many, like Ricardo’s family, lost their homes. Some from communities who rely on farming became food insecure. Some reported that hurricanes, heavy rains, and flooding destroyed crops and closed businesses. For example, several Central American families we interviewed reported that hurricanes Eta and Iota destroyed their crops and farmland, decimating their only source of income. The storms also destroyed the house of a Honduran family, forcing them to shelter with friends and family members until they were able to move into a new house. The damage drove the family into extreme poverty, destroying their ability to pay extortion fees demanded by the gang controlling the region, whose mounting threats of violence forced the family to flee.

Climate change and violence

As climate change wreaks havoc on communities, the resulting economic devastation enables the rise of violent criminal organizations that already control many parts of Mexico and Central America. Recall that tensions between gang members controlling Ricardo’s region reached a boiling point only after the hurricane destroyed Ricardo’s business, rendering him unable to pay extortion fees. We also spoke with several farmers who suffered crop losses due to hurricanes, droughts, or floods, and as a result, were unable to pay gangs and cartels who continued to demand extortion payments without consideration for their hardships. 

Ricardo was one of several individuals who reported that inability to make these payments resulted in violence or threats, forcing them to flee their homes. We interviewed a Mexican family who fell into poverty after droughts and floods destroyed their tomato crops, making it impossible for them to meet the extortion demands imposed by the local gang. The mother described the situation, saying, “Sometimes you can’t earn anything. Where can one get money when there’s nothing to sell? The gangs keep asking for their bribes, and they don’t care about these things. If you don’t pay, they kill you.” This family fled after gang members killed the woman’s brother and uncle and abducted her husband.

As climate-related destruction leaves community members unable to sustain themselves, organized criminal groups exploit the community’s vulnerability to increase their size and influence, including by controlling access to essential supplies. A couple from Southern Mexico told us the cartel controlling his region capitalized on severe drought conditions that devastated the local maize crop by increasing the prices of seeds, fertilizer, and produce. The gang closely monitored purchases of these goods outside their territory and demanded “tax” payments for such purchases. The couple fled because they could not afford to pay the higher prices and because the gang threatened them. 

We spoke with several individuals targeted for their efforts to defend their land from illegal dispossession, including a Mexican woman whose family led the fight against deforestation by cartel members controlling the region. She was forced to flee with her three young children after the cartel murdered her parents, husband, and four of her siblings due to their activism. Climate change contributes to illegal land seizures by degrading environments and diminishing available land and natural resources in vulnerable regions. Faced with this scarcity, powerful entities, including government officials, private developers, and criminal organizations, target the lands and resources of Indigenous and other marginalized groups. 

As climate change increasingly contributes to displacement, the United States and other governments are not expanding access to protection for people in need. Instead, they are increasingly turning to draconian enforcement measures at land borders that illegally impede the asylum process. At the U.S-Mexico border, the U.S. government used the Title 42 policy for more than three years to block and expel asylum seekers in violation of domestic and international laws under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19. When the policy expired in May 2023, rather than restore asylum access, the government introduced a rule that effectively bans asylum for anyone who enters the United States at a land border without a previously-scheduled appointment. 

Indeed, Ricardo’s family and the other individuals we interviewed in early 2023 were stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border due to Title 42 border restrictions, awaiting the ability to seek an exception through the dystopian U.S. Customs and Border Protection web application CBP One. Some had been waiting for weeks or months, not knowing when or if they’d be able to seek protection. During the week we conducted interviews, a bomb cyclone had flooded the road leading to the Tijuana shelter where we interviewed Ricardo’s family and others, making access to the shelter difficult and dangerous. Shortly after we left, rainwater flooded the shelter itself, soaking the mats on the floor where Ricardo’s family had been sleeping. Many shelter residents became sick as a result. Thus, these policies further endanger people seeking protection at the U.S.-Mexico border by trapping them in dangerous conditions made more treacherous by the effects of climate change. 

Politics behind climate displacement and state responses 

The United States has also pressured Mexico to increase enforcement and enact measures restricting the movement of migrants and asylum seekers headed north. These measures include new visa restrictions for some Central and South Americans, travel regulations requiring proof of immigration status to board public buses, and the mobilization of the National Guard and other security forces to enforce immigration laws. Heightened enforcement measures in Mexico have led to unlawful detentions, illegal forced returns to danger, and other abuses. 

Policies aimed at obstructing and repelling asylum seekers also force people seeking safety to undertake more dangerous routes through harsh terrain controlled by brutal organized criminal groups and made even more treacherous by the effects of climate change. 

Instead of restrictive policies that further endanger people seeking protection, governments in the Americas should establish pathways for climate-displaced people to access safety. Some countries are already doing this. For example. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have entered into regional free movement agreements that provide for safe mobility for displaced people, including those impacted by climate change. 

All countries in the Americas must strengthen and uphold their existing asylum and refugee protection programs. As our research at the border demonstrates, climate change plays an enormous role in driving displacement and exacerbates other threats forcing people to seek safety across borders. Climate change and climate-related disasters are driving families into poverty, increasing the influence of organized criminal groups across the region, and contributing to illegal land dispossession. As global temperatures rise, climate-related disasters will continue to disproportionately impact marginalized groups that already face structural challenges. The situation will likely further deteriorate in the years to come. Receiving countries must enact policies that reflect this reality and welcome people seeking safety with dignity and compassion, rather than hardening borders against those who deserve protection and a decent life.

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