Fleeing the Weather

By Elizabeth Donger

Photo by Dorotea Churi/Ojos Propios/ILAS, Columbia University.

View the photo gallery for "Hurricane Series" by Frances Gallardo.

The streets of Santiago K are quiet. This village in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia bustled throughout centuries of conquest and expansion, but the mayor is now one of the few remaining residents. He says most of the young have migrated across the border to Chile in search of work, some to other towns in Bolivia. Eighty percent of families have left since 2015. Multiple seasons of drought have decimated the area’s quinoa crops and dried up the river. For these farming families, there was simply no way to make ends meet.

The term “climate migrant,” bringing together two of today’s most timely and fear-ridden debates, typically conjures images of people forcibly displaced by hurricanes, floods or rising sea levels. These issues have increasing political, academic and social visibility across Latin America.

People like the residents of Santiago K have used migration to adapt to changing climate for centuries. A study in the January 2011 issue of Science connected periods of low temperature in the early 17th and 19th centuries to “sustained settlement abandonment during the Thirty Years’ War and the modern migrations from Europe to America.” But today climate change is impacting migration patterns across Latin America and the Caribbean in accelerated and diverse ways.

International law does not guarantee a “right to migrate” for these people fleeing the weather. States can choose to provide short term humanitarian visas but are obliged to provide safe haven only to certain categories of vulnerable individuals, most significantly, refugees. And refugee law, designed for the displacement challenges of the 1950s, does not apply. It guarantees refuge to those fleeing individual persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Latin America’s existing frameworks for regional free-movement lay the groundwork for an effective and humane alternative response, allowing some citizens to legally emigrate and work with minimal requirements. These frameworks can be useful more broadly, but stand to be tested in the coming years. The most visible examples of climate change’s impact on migration are sudden-onset disasters leading to large collective evacuations. In 2016 alone, an estimated 1.8 million people were displaced across Latin America and the Caribbean by hurricanes, floods or mudslides. Evacuations due to rising sea levels are another high profile example: in Panama, plans are underway for the exodus of the Guna indigenous people from the San Blas archipelago, as the water begins to swallow their homes.

Thirteen-year-old Luis Lulo Granados took this photo of a Peruvian neighborhood.

At the same time, the long-term effects of climate change on migration patterns, as witnessed in Santiago K, remain poorly understood and under-addressed. Less visibly, the slow-onset impacts of climate change both directly and indirectly drive decisions to uproot. Land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, and drought are widespread examples. A recent World Food Program survey of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras found that of six main reasons to emigrate, the highest percentage of respondents reported “no food” as being most important: a multi-year drought and 2015-2016 El Niño in the so-called “Dry Corridor” of these countries has left 3.2 million without enough to eat.

Climate change restricts and disrupts access to water, land, and employment. The poor and marginalized carry this burden disproportionally. Resource scarcity and inequality also have well-documented links to violence of all kinds. Examples include civil unrest over fresh water scarcity in Peru and Bolivia; the murder of environmental activists in Brazil; and spikes in intimate partner violence in Nicaragua in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. All these complex factors impact individual migration decisions. As environmental law expert Benoit Mayer has written, “the physical effects of climate change produce series of social effects which…extend ad infinitum and ad absurdum in time and space.”

Brazilian law professor Lilian Yamamoto and colleagues, reviewing available literature on environmental change and migration in Latin America, found that most displacements occur internally, towards urban centers, and usually last a short time. This truth is often omitted from current migration debates: most people prefer to stay in their home country if possible. But, as opportunities diminish in a country for safety, education, health and well-being, it is deeply human to look for these things further afield.

How should all these people be classified at the border? It is difficult to attribute any one event to climate change, and difficult to attribute migration to any one cause. Santiago K’s residents left Bolivia because of the drought, but also to find ways to meet their mounting debts: the quinoa industry has suffered from the fluctuating tastes of U.S. markets and competing production from Peru. So are they climate migrants, or something else? This label is subjective.

This complexity makes it difficult to predict the scale of the problem, and think about long-term, practical policy responses beyond disaster management.

biosfera huascaran

Across the continent, a number of regional and sub-regional platforms, working groups and coalitions have begun to address the effects of climate change on migration. Although inevitably somewhat disjointed, these efforts are remarkable in bringing together players across multiple sectors–climate change, disaster risk reduction, environmental protection, human rights, humanitarian response, migration and security. Their focus to date has largely been on short-onset climate disasters, both on risk reduction and response.

In November 2016, the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM) convened eleven countries from across the Americas to adopt a best practice guide on this issue. The guide provides non-binding direction to member countries on how existing law, policy and practice in the Americas can address the needs of persons displaced across borders in the context of disasters. It advocates for flexible application of existing migration categories, granting of humanitarian visas, and temporary suspension of return to disaster-affected countries. The effects on regional responsibility-sharing and cooperation have already been positive. The South American Conference of Migration is now developing a similar document.

But what about those displaced by the slow-onset effects of climate change? In a review of the RCM Guide, Walter Kälin and David Cantor write that there is “little State practice” on this front in Latin America. Some political and academic actors are advocating for the creation of new migration laws that specifically protect “climate migrants.” Without consensus around whom exactly the term encompasses, this is a Sisyphean task. Even if the terms were clear, questions arise about prioritizing categories of migrants, thus creating more meaningless hierarchies between categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants.

Latin America’s existing free-movement frameworks position the region well to respond to the migration effects of slow-onset climate change. The 2002 MERCOSUR (Mercado Común del Sur) Residence Agreement permits nationals of Member and Associate States—including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Suriname, with Venezuela temporarily suspended—to reside and work in any of these places for a period of two years. There are no economic requirements, only proof of citizenship and a clean criminal record for the previous five years. The permit offers the right to equal working conditions, family reunification, and access to education for children. After two years, the permit can be transformed into permanent residency, contingent on meeting requirements for financial sufficiency.

The Andean Community (CAN) has also adopted a migration instrument to facilitate free movement of select workers from member states Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Both of these blocs participate in the sub-continental process of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a forum with the explicit aim of facilitating “cooperation on issues of migration” and ultimately developing a South American citizenship.

These frameworks allow people to use migration as an adaptation tool. Residents of Santiago K who moved across the border from Bolivia to Chile could get access to legal residence, work and basic services. This approach respects the rights of migrants: they do not languish in detention centers or suffer needlessly from the inability to meet their family’s basic needs. This approach also allows migrants to help fill key labor market shortages, send back remittances and bring newly acquired skills, knowledge, networks and links to new markets.

Forecasts for the number of people displaced globally by climate-related events by the year 2050 range from 25 million to one billion. Unsurprisingly, experts have questioned the accuracy of these projections for a phenomenon without a clear definition. But it is reasonable to expect that numbers will be large. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), intra-regional migration just in South America went up 11 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Latin America’s remarkable commitment to the principles of open borders and freedom of movement dates back to the 19th century, when most countries gained independence. Yet, as is evident all over the world, increasing numbers of new arrivals are often met with popular backlash and heavily secured borders. An influx of Haitian immigrants to Chile is fuelling a debate there over racism and xenophobia. In January 2017, Argentina’s President Macri issued a decree making it easier to deport immigrants and restrict their entry.

These free-movement agreements are also currently inconsistently applied by each state, as per their political and social climate; for example, more progressively than required in Uruguay, but more restrictively in Chile. Unlike in the European Union, the power held by the MERCOSUR and CAN is intergovernmental, not supranational. As migration lawyer Diego Acosta points out, “South America is now at a crucial crossroads on regional mobility” and must “take further action to solidify a free mobility scheme in the near future.”

Mayer writes in The Concept of Climate Migration that “despite its essential flaws, the concept of climate migration has…a particularly strong political currency.” This currency should be used to advocate for humane policy for people using migration to adapt to the slow-onset effects of climate change, as well as for people fleeing sudden climate disasters. In some quarters, it is already being used to stir up anxiety around floods of newcomers and to militarize borders, as documented in Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall.

Latin America’s crucial experiment in free movement needs further study. How many Bolivians from Santiago K were able to take advantage of the opportunity to move to Chile? How did it impact their opportunities and decisions, and those of the families they left behind? Did the Chilean state and economy benefit?

Firm evidence about this group and locality would have implications for migration policy outside this regional bloc. No one is taking bets that the United States will adopt a similar open-doors policy for Central Americans fleeing the Dry Corridor. Latin America’s free-movement regime is premised in large part on shared identity, as in Europe. Nevertheless, evidence of the benefits of this approach—giving people the right to legal residence, work, and access to basic services—could be used to advocate for increased labor mobility pathways.

Despite efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change, emigration from places like Santiago K will become an increasingly familiar reality. This model of response deserves our full attention.

Elizabeth Donger is a Research Associate at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. She works on issues of distress migration, child protection and climate change with a focus on Latin America and Asia.