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Monday, August 2, 2010


Written in reflection of UNU-EHS 2010 Summer Academy on Social Vulnerability in Munich July 25-31 on Protecting Environmental Migrants: Creating New Policy and Institutional Frameworks ( see for details)

This blog is nearly always dedicated to stories of Santiago Texacuangos, often placed in the broader context of El Salvador but almost never placed in a truly regional or even global context.

The communities of Santiago are one of many in El Salvador, which is one of many countries in the world severely affected by climate change and migration. El Salvador, which struggles to provide basic education and healthcare and whose economy depends (17%) on remittances from an estimated 2.7 million legal and not-so-legal migrants in the USA is scraping by. The cash boost sent from the US is greater than Foreign Direct Investment and International Aid combined. Remittances are disaster insurance, educational scholarships, farm credit when none is available to support rural livelihoods and stem ever increasing urbanization to a city whose current social services are stressed by overpopulation.

Disaster patterns in El Salvador are ever increasing, and will continue to do so in the coming years due to unpredictability of El Nino/La Nina cycles. This year, for example, unexpected downpours in August, the month that is normally a mid-summer drought, will threaten to destroy corn crops, which will further indebt farmers who already lost bean crops in Hurricane Ida last November. Increase in sea level rises could wipe out the entire Bajo Lempa region in the next 100 years, and corn may become inviable in the next 50 years depending on temperature increases.

How many Salvadoran will need to migrate within or outside the country due to these changes? How will the Salvadoran government come up with money for adaptation? And should they? (NGOs such as UNES feels that since climate change was caused mainly by the US and Europe, they owe an ecological debt to countries in the global south such as El Salvador). Disaster microinsurance, better river basin management, and new urban planning to handle those internally displaced from Bajo Lempa are among the adaptation options. But undoubtedly some, as many Salvadorans already have done will look for work abroad to feed their families. How many? And how?

Environmental migration is already a adaptation strategies millions are using to survive- estimates range from 20-200 million globally. Recent studies from Princeton University suggest 1.4 million to 6.7 millio as the amount of Mexicans who may flee to the United States from drought induced by climate change. How many will die along the way? US borders are getting tighter, and climate change is accelerating.

This is not just a US-Mexico issue. Some countries, like the Maldives and Tuvalu, are sinking. Begging the questions as to where such possibly “stateless” peoples will go. Bangladesh may have over 10 million people displaced from sea level rise in an already overpopulated and poor nation. Increased desertification from the Sahara and the Sahel in Africa and other predicted droughts will increase water scarcity by a third. Where will people move in search of water? The statistics are staggering (see In Seach of Shelter reports of the Each-For project to read more).

Environmental migrations have no cross border protection, and the internal protection is minimal most places. A framework for Guidelines of Internally Displaced Persons exists to protect environmental migrants, but this soft law document did not protect inhabitants of Joya Grande, whose right to information and transparent resettlement is being violated. Even worse, environmental migrants who cross borders are protected by NO law- refugee law does not include this category. Though the United States offers a stay of deportation known as temporary protection status to victims from sudden onset disasters like Earthquakes and hurricanes (thousands of Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Haitians cannot be deported for this reason) so that nationals are not forced back to a country in which they cannot survive. TPS is a huge step, but it does not cover those suffering from drought, and may not cover those suffering from sea level rise. Most importantly, TPS does NOT mean that Salvadorans suffering from hurricane Ida can enter the USA- TPS only applies to Salvadorans who illegal resided in the US at the time of the 2001 earthquake.

So what to do with millions of environmental migrants who have no legal protection? I was recently in Munich July 24-31 with the UN University and 30 other students and experts on the issue to discuss what could be done and should be proposed in the next climate change negotiations (this November in Mexico). We came up with some new ideas- like a Temporary Relocation Status, expansion of circular migrations programs (check out TCLM between Spain and Colombia), and regional border agreements like Ca-4 with CAFTA (free movement between Guate, El Salv, Honduras, and Nica with no visa required), ECOWAS (West African Nations), the Mekong Delta countries, ALBA etc. Cross border migrants need protection- and the US and Europe should share the migration burden as part of their ecological debt. Look for the full report here in the coming months.

As for the poorest of the poor, whose lack of cash constraints them from moving internationally (especially after disasters! It costs $7,000 to migrate illegally to the USA!) need internal protection, and soft law like the IDP guidelines should be hardlaw and implementation burdens funded by developing countries.

The climate is changing and people will move. These people need protection. The cost of doing nothing may be many human lives if people fail to survive in their own countries and/or continues to cross dangerous borders (reports in 51 bodies found in a new mass grave in northern mexico).

Reformulating migration policies is just one of many steps the globally community must take to get ready for climate change. Migration will hopefully only be ONE OF MANY possible adaptations to climate change. Community Organization and Reforestation Projects in Santa Maria de la Esperanza, for example, show strong community capacity and will keep the community viable by mitigating risk and responding to change with solutions. CEIBA is a part of this process in El Salvador, bring the voice of the people to government meetings and consultations to form a climate change adaptation plans. These steps are necessary, but migration will be necessary too- and as US citizens in solidarity with El Salvador we must raise the issue of environmental migration in the upcoming immigration reforms talks. CLIMATE CHANGE must be part of the narrative in developing future-oriented immigration policy.

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