Human Rights Violations at the U.S. Border and the Future of Climate Migrants

Arnovis Guidos Portillo came from a family of fishermen in El Salvador, a small country on the Pacific coast in Central America. With fish disappearing, Arnovis also worked as a day laborer in order to make enough to take care of himself and his daughter. However, in recent years this kind of work has become more and more scarce due to drought. After a scuffle during a soccer game placed him on a gang hit list, he would have had to venture into rival gang territory to find enough work. This was too dangerous, and he likely would have been killed. He decided to leave for the United States, and he took his daughter with him. At the border the two of them were separated, placed in different states with zero contact. Arnovis signed deportation papers in order to be reunited with his daughter but was sent back to El Salvador without her. It wasn’t until months later after a lot of advocacy that she was returned to him in El Salvador. Stories like Arnovis’ are becoming more common not just in El Salvador but in neighboring countries and around the world. Drought and other climate related factors in tandem with factors like violence or poverty are leading people to move where they hope to find better opportunities. Arnovis is just one of the growing number of migrants affected by increasing climate change. 

File:Fisherman at Tela, Honduras (5227037625).jpg
Fisherman in Tela, Honduras

People like Arnovis can be classified as climate migrants, or people displaced in a context of natural disasters and climate change. There are often other factors leading to migration such as gang violence, government persecution, and economic instability, but climate change has a compounding impact on these factors. For example, increased droughts, floods, temperatures, or crop diseases brought on by climate change may deeply hurt agricultural economies which destroys livelihoods. Some are pushed into the illegal drug trade and gangs as a result. More generally, resource scarcity brings with it conflict and violence as it has since the beginning of time. Climate change affects resource scarcity around the world, and we can be sure that this scarcity will be exacerbated by the conflict and violence that will accompany it. 

Many of the Central American migrants coming to the United States fall into the category of climate migrants. An area known as the Northern Triangle, which includes the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. These three countries are built on economies reliant on agriculture. However, climate change is destroying their productivity. El Salvador is expected to lose 18-28% of its current coastline by the end of the century, Guatemala is expected to see its arid regions spread into agricultural areas, and Honduras will see more drought in areas that need rain while other areas will see a 60% increase in floods. Local economies and agriculture will be particularly affected. Climate change will destroy many livelihoods in coming years, and we can already see it happening in cases like Arnovis. 

The Northern Triangle

For many of the migrants to the US from the northern Triangle, climate change is an important factor in pushing them to leave, even if it is not the reason they give. The International Organization for Migration conducted a survey of migrants from El Salvador on their way to the United States and found that most left for economic opportunity, for violence and insecurity or for a combination of these factors. The larger connection to climate change may not be explicitly stated but that does not mean it is not there. Unawareness of the issue and how it impacts other factors that cause people to migrate, in large part due to poor education on climate change, are likely responsible for the omittance of climate change in the given reasons for migration. For example, one farmer from El Salvador with a second grade level education knew that some international issue was affecting his tomato yield, but he only had vague ideas of what it could be. The reasons weren’t important to him, anyway. What was important was feeding his family. 

In the case of Central American migrants coming to the US, these migrants have encountered xenophobic policies upon their arrival. Policies like indefinite detention without a criminal charge and family separation are meant to punish asylum seekers coming to the US and discourage others from coming. These policies also violate their human rights, including right to freedom from torture and ill-treatment, right to liberty, right to family unity. These human rights are universal and outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By violating these human rights, the US government is in violation of international laws. Since the US has not ratified most of these human rights declarations, they have been allowed to act without accountability. 

With the number of climate migrants projected to only increase worldwide, the US border is an example of things to come. The clash of xenophobia with an increased number of climate refugees is likely to grow around the world. The 1990 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration. With rising sea levels, for example, it is projected that the coastline housing 10% of the world’s population will be inundated with just a one meter rise in sea level, something nearly certain to occur by the end of this century. The UN estimates that by 2050, 200 million people will be displaced from homes due to climate change. Other figures reach as high as 1 billion people.

Mexico-United States Border at San Diego/Tijuana

The UN Global Compact for Migration has a section on climate change as a driver of migration, but it puts no substantive policies in place which give climate migrants any protections. This agreement marked the first time that a major migration policy addressed climate change, which is a step in the right direction. However, the US has not signed on to this agreement. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or the Paris Agreement, also acknowledges migrants in connection to climate change but takes no additional steps towards the protection of climate migrants. As it exists today, with no international protective framework for people fleeing due to climate change it is likely that the US border will prove to be a template for future global dynamics. Therefore, it is likely that human rights abuses spurred by xenophobia will greet a growing number of climate migrants as they reach international borders.