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Climate migration
Migrants flee but are detained by the police. Photo: Guatemalan Migration Institute.

How extreme weather is forcing Central Americans to migrate

‘La Casa del Migrante’ is a Catholic organization that runs 17 shelters in Guatemala. The shelters host asylum seekers and migrants who pass through the country on their way to the United States. During 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, few people arrived in search of help.

But according to director Father Juan Carvajal, the shelters have remained full in 2021. The change of government in the United States, the end of pandemic lockdown and two hurricanes that hit the area increased migratory flows compared to last year. 

“Every day hundreds of people migrate in silent caravans,” Carvajal said. Entire families flee from the consequences of the pandemic and natural hazards, which aggravate existing problems such as poverty and violence.

Now, as climate change worsens, it threatens to displace even more people from their homes. Since the 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that “the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration.”

The first migrant caravan of 2021 was registered last January. Around 9.000 people, including children and pregnant women, walked from Honduras to reach the United States. They were unable to cross Guatemala because the police and the army blocked their way.

In March 2021 another group left Honduras with the same intention. They were fewer people, but their reasons the same. Guatemala blocked their way and returned them to the Honduras border. Other small groups crossed through blind spots without the authorities noticing them.

La Casa del Migrante is a shelter for migrants and asylum seekers. Photo: Jody García.

Climate and poverty  

In Central America, 2020 ended with entire communities destroyed and flooded by two category 4 hurricanes Eta and Iota. Due to the rain, entire villages became lagoons. This occurred only one year after a drought had increased poverty and malnutrition.

The Central American Dry Corridor (CDC) is an arid zone that runs through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The CDC countries are prone to droughts and extreme weather events.

The German Watch global risk index analyzed which countries were most affected by the impacts of extreme weather events in 1998-2007. The index placed the four central American countries in the 20 most-affected globally. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that by 2016 there were 3.5 million people in the region in need of humanitarian assistance and 1.6 million more suffered food insecurity.

Faces of Hunger in Central America is a report by Oxfam Latin-America. The document  presents a panorama of the effects of climate change and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in this region.

“The existing inequality is aggravated by climate drivers and social phenomena such as violence and the growth of criminal groups, especially gangs. These elements cause displacement and migration,” the report states.

The army blocks the passage of migrants traveling by caravan from Honduras to the United States. Photo: Guatemalan Migration Institute.

Droughts and floods

In 2019, the CDC experienced prolonged droughts that according to FAO, resulted in 2.2 million people suffering crop losses. During 2020, the region faced one of the most intense storm seasons with tropical storms Amanda and Cristóbal, and hurricanes Eta and Iota.

“The torrential rains were as abundant as the poor families affected,” the report Faces of Hunger says. Between May and June 2020, storm Amanda affected 457.000 people, and hurricanes Eta and Iota left 2.5 million people affected.

The report reveals that rainfall destroyed at least 600 thousand hectares of basic and commercial grain crops in 2020.  These losses imply that poor families become poorer, as they have less food available for consumption and sale.

“This is subsistence migration, not only economically-driven,” said Carlos López, administrator of one of the shelters of the Casa del Migrante. “The lack of food, housing, and abandonment of the goverments, cause entire families to flee their countries,” López continued.

Climate migration
Carlos López, administrator of Casa del Migrante. Photo: Jody García.

Joe Biden’s arrival to the presidency of the United States seemed like the beginning  of more flexible immigration policies. However, although the hate speech promoted in the Donald Trump administration ceased, the laws remain the same so far.

“Migration policies remain the same. But people do not know it, that is why many migrants are traveling blindly,” said López.

One of the great bets of the Joe Biden government is the delivery of $4 billion to Central American countries. The initiative would aim to promote development and stop the root causes of migration

However, there is one condition to the aid package: that governments commit to anti-corruption measures.

According to López, the countries of the region are allying with the United States by closing borders and stopping migrants. They are not attacking the causes of migration.