The Forgotten Migrants of Central America

Traditional indigenous attire of a Mayan woman from the Quiche region of Guatemala. Credit: UN Photo/John Olsson

By Caley Pigliucci
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 12 2019 – Rural and indigenous populations in countries like Guatemala and Honduras are increasingly on the move – either migrating internally or to neighbouring countries.

But the focus on these populations has been limited, leaving them forgotten and marginalized as they continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change.

The disappearance of farmlands and unreliability of crops due to climate change have led families to experience increased food and economic insecurity—that have forced some of them to migrate.

“In general, we can say that the majority of rural migrants are poor people, but often not the poorest, because the latter cannot afford the significant costs of these journeys,” Ricardo Rapallo, Senior Food Security Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IPS.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), between 2000 and 2010, the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased by an average of 59% and the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increased from 50,000 during 2010 to over 400,000 in 2016.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Honduras, told IPS, “When we talk about climate change, we have to think about historical and social factors that leave certain groups more impacted than others…many of the people who farm and fish on the lands most vulnerable to climate change have been historically mistreated.”

“Realizing that those most impacted are indigenous is critical, because it hasn’t been part of the main stream conversation, and it needs to be,” Kennedy added.

The United Nations does not label those forced to migrate due to climate change as ‘climate refugees.’

A change in language would require an agreement among member-states altering the definition of refugees (currently defined as: “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence”.

And a refugee also has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

However, Kennedy emphasized that “Indigeneity is a protected factor, and that is a reason to claim asylum.” But she warns that in the case of migration from Central America, “many people around the US, including lawyers are not aware that they need to be looking at historic and systemic inclusion.”

She added that this is true “even in Guatemala and Honduras. This is in fact demonstrative that the state doesn’t take it seriously.”

Researchers, like Kennedy, are frustrated as they see little data and few programs that help indigenous and rural people which also take into account the fraught history that indigenous people have in Central America, a place where a number of massacres occurred in 1996 and many are still recovering from the violence.

Kennedy said there are six indigenous groups in Honduras and over 30 in Guatemala, but she expressed her desire to see “updated statistics on the various indigenous groups.”

Many climate migrants are also left out of the public eye because they only migrate within their own country.

“It is important to stress that, even if the international migration is the one gathering public attention, and motivating political reactions, internal migration is by far larger,” said Rapallo..

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated external migration in 2015 at around 244 million people, while internal migration (as of 2009) was estimated at 740 million people.

For many who experience food insecurities, families will send one member to another country to provide for the family from afar, but the rest of the family will remain in their home country.

The FAO says “what has been observed is that young people represent a major part of the international migrants.”

Alongside the increase of internal migration and external migration among youth, Kennedy also sees an increase in family units migrating away from Guatemala and Honduras in recent years, which, she says, “shows that more is happening than needing to just provide economic stability to the home.”

Rapallo said: “If we want to give people options and make an impact on migration movements, we should work on the root causes of migration.”

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken a specific policy initiative to protect climate migrants: the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD).

UNHCR representatives told IPS that the PDD “…promotes policy and normative developments to address gaps in the protection of people at risk of displacement or already displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disaster.”

UNHCR says that member-states and stake-holders will have an opportunity to “…deliver concrete pledges and contributions that will advance the objectives of the Global Compact and highlight key achievements and good practices” at the Global Refugee Forum on the 17 and 18 of December 2019.

But, thus far, it remains unclear to what extent the PDD has had an effect on the admittance or protections of climate migrants.

The 2019 Climate Action Summit will take place this September during the UN General Assembly sessions.

Luis Alfonso de Alba, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the summit responded to a question from IPS about the potential need to update language surrounding climate migrants.

At a press briefing on May 28th, he said: “This is not a meeting for negotiations… So I think the topic of language will continue to rather be an issue for member states.”

“We are obviously taking into account the impact of climate change into migration as a topic,” he added, but said “We are not negotiating language.”

Though de Alba assured IPS that indigenous populations will be involved in the summit, rural and indigenous populations migrating internally and externally in Central America are still largely over-looked.

Kennedy worries that not enough is being done. “They need targeted programs, they need targeted statistics, and these are not provided,” she said.

Rapallo said: “The right to migrate also involves the right not to migrate. Migration should be an option, but not the only option to pursue a better life, or sometimes even to survive.”