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Climate change is altering migration patterns regionally and globally


Since at least 2014, a growing number of asylum-seekers from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. While the response from the Obama administration raised genuine protection concerns, the Trump administration has taken the draconian and unwelcoming approach of dismantling the U.S. asylum system by restricting grounds for asylum, separating families, and illegally blocking access to ports of entry. The current administration has also adopted the “Remain in Mexico” policy and so-called safe third country agreements, which forces asylum-seekers to remain in dangerous situations.

Many individuals coming to the United States from Central America are fleeing violence, poverty, and corruption. But climate change is emerging as both a direct and an indirect driver of migration that complicates existing vulnerabilities. Persistent drought, fluctuating temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall have reduced crop yields throughout the Northern Triangle—a region that comprises El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—challenging livelihoods and access to food in agriculturally dependent communities. By denying the reality of climate change and taking a hard-line approach to migration, the Trump administration has shown its unwillingness to address the root causes of migration in the Americas.

There is currently no international legal framework to address environmental disasters and climate change as drivers of migration. There is also no consensus on what terminology should be used to describe individuals moving due to environmental factors. The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Refugee Protocol, multilateral agreements that define “refugee” and set states’ obligations for protection, were not crafted with the environment, climate change, or environmental disasters in mind—and therefore do not mention them as grounds for refugee protection. U.S. refugee policy, codified in the Refugee Act of 1980, is largely based on the framework outlined in these agreements and thus excludes these terms.