On an otherwise normal Thursday evening in January, groups of people began to arrive at the bus stop in San Pedro Sula, a city of some 850,000 in northern Honduras.
Many had been hard hit by two major hurricanes last year and Covid-19. Their plan was to head north to the United States, where they perhaps hoped for a warmer welcome from incoming president Joe Biden than they would have from the previous administration. Seeking safety in numbers, they set off at the same time, forming a caravan of the kind seen in 2017 and 2018.
Some 8,000 Hondurans are estimated to have joined this “migrant caravan”, which was later dispersed in bordering Guatemala by a coordinated military operation, with the majority of participants returned to Honduras. The Biden administration warned the migrants that it was “not the time to make the journey”.
As far as the US was concerned, it was crisis averted. But it left a precarious population trapped in a region devastated by hurricanes Eta and Iota. As the impacts of climate change compound, increasing numbers of people globally are expected to move to more hospitable territory, yet mechanisms for identifying and supporting climate migrants remain in their infancy.
In November 2020, Honduras and other Central American countries were hit by two major hurricanes just weeks apart.
First came Hurricane Eta, a Category 4 storm which among other places flooded San Pedro Sula, where many people were left stranded on their roofs awaiting rescue. Two weeks later Hurricane Iota hit the country, exacerbating the damage.
The hurricanes and their aftermath affected more than 4 million people in Honduras – nearly half its population – and cost an estimated $9bn. More than 85,000 homes were damaged and 6,000 destroyed. A million and a half children and teenagers in Central America remain exposed to disease due to contaminated water systems, according to Unicef.
Gerardo Chevez, a journalist who travelled with the caravan for several days reporting for Radio Progreso de Honduras, says many of the people in the caravan had been affected by the storms and resultant flooding. “There are people who, at this point of time almost three months later, are still living on the street: in boulevards, under bridges,” he says. “Some lost their homes, for others their houses are still full mud and debris. What little they had, they lost.”
Among the migrants were many single mothers, sometimes with two or three children, he says: “The caravans have a female face.”
Marta Jimenéz, who works with Medicins Sans Frontiers on their Choloma project in Honduras, agreed motives for joining the caravan appeared to be the economic impacts of the pandemic and the emergencies caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota. “Many people have been left houseless and homeless due to the hurricanes,” she said. Others had experienced sexual or other kinds of violence, she added.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ended the year as the most active ever recorded, with 30 named storms – more than twice the long-term yearly average. Scientists have attributed this to a stronger-than anticipated La Niña pattern and record high sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic.
James Kossin, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it is challenging to directly attribute the behavior of individual extreme storm events, such as these hurricanes, to climate change. “After all, there have been very intense hurricanes striking Central America for millions of years,” he says.
“What we do have good evidence for is that climate change has made hurricanes stronger and wetter, they are more likely to very rapidly strengthen, which we saw in both Eta and Iota, and they are more likely to ‘stall’, which we saw with Eta and the resulting devastating inland flooding.”
Projections show a high likelihood that the strongest hurricanes will continue to become stronger and cause more rain, adds Kossin.
The hurricanes were not the only reason the caravan left Honduras. And climate change was not the only reason hurricanes Eta and Iota formed and intensified. Determining who qualifies as a climate migrant is not easy.
Forecasts of the number of environmental migrants globally by 2050 range from 25 million to 1 billion, according to the International Organization of Migration, with 200 million the most widely used estimate.
“The biggest stickler issue with loss and damage [a term which links to climate-induced migration] is the whole issue of attribution,” says Pascal Girot, director of the School of Geography at the University of Costa Rica and member of Costa Rica’s climate negotiation team. “How much of what’s happening in Honduras is due to the hurricanes or to land degradation or drought or other climate-related hazards. And how much is due to drug-related violence and other poor governance issues in Honduras, which is plagued with huge institutional problems.”
Erol Yayboke, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last year co-authored a report looking at how countries, and especially the US, could develop better policies on climate migration.
This suggested several potential legal mechanisms. One is a climate-specific version of the US’ existing “temporary protected status” (TPS) for those affected by natural disasters, which would be extended to people who had not yet arrived in the US. An independent, nonpartisan, panel of climate science and migration experts would decide which disasters qualified.
Alongside this, a climate migrant resettlement program could offer refuge to those displaced by irreversible changes such as sea level rise or intolerable heat.
Yayboke was pessimistic about the chances of these ideas being taken up in the next few years. “Even with a Democratic-controlled Senate, even with a US administration that believes in science again, this is going to be exceedingly difficult to do.”
President Biden has issued several executive orders undoing elements of president Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including halting funding for the construction of a border wall with Mexico.
But incoming officials warned the situation at the border “isn’t going to be transformed overnight”. An early question for Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nomination as secretary of homeland security, is whether there will be another TPS programme, says Yayboke. Currently some 44,000 Hondurans are living in the US under TPS.
Loss and damage
Mechanisms to help or even identify climate migrants are still very much in their infancy. A task force on displacement delivered its recommendations at 2018 UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland, but have not yet been acted on, says Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.
Negotiations at the last annual UN climate summit on loss and damage – a term which covers climate-induced migration – disappointed many developing countries after failing to set up a new financial facility for countries facing climate emergencies, says Huq. Developing countries have long pushed for concrete financial support for loss and damage. Developed countries – especially the US – have long been resistant to providing this finance.
Other avenues such as the global compacts on migration and for refugees already have structures in place to deal with human mobility challenges. “They’re imperfect, they are incomplete, but they are a framework through which to actually discuss global issues,” says Yayboke.
Back in Honduras, it seems those who have returned from the caravan have little to improve their situation. “The Honduran government does not respond to the needs of the population impacted by hurricanes Eta and Iota,” says Chevez. “Most affected people, especially those who live on public roads, survive on the solidarity of the population.”
In one sense, the plight of Hondurans is not just a plight for Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans or Americans, says Yayboke. “Events like this are going to be happening more and more and more around the world,” he says. “And we need a more multilateral way of addressing it.”