Policy Brief: Ill Health, Climate Change, and Migration in Honduras, Mexico, and the United States.
By: Alejandra Díaz de León, John Doering-White, Deniz Daşer, Amelia Frank-Vitale, José Enrique Hasemann Lara.
SUMMARY: In this blog post we take climate change and health as two vantage points for understanding how multiple factors overlap in contributing to migration. We call for a broader reconceptualization of climate change response away from preparedness for acute emergencies and toward everyday community-level health and stability.
In the fall of 2020 amidst the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, hurricanes Eta and Iota wrought destruction in Honduras and led to a public recognition of how, in addition to violence and poverty, climate change and ill-health forced displacement from Central America. This mass exodus drew international attention to how climate change and health intersect to shape forced displacement from Central America. While Eta and Iota (together with the pandemic) were particularly visible forms of climatic disruption, they are in fact acute instances of long-term, ongoing, constant “emergencies” that are shaped by multiple factors.
This report takes climate change and health as two vantage points for understanding how multiple factors overlap in contributing to migration. Our findings from this preliminary research project suggest such overlap speaks to the importance of changing how aid workers, policy makers, and researchers approach international protection. We also call for a broader reconceptualization of approaches to responding to climate change away from preparedness for acute emergencies and toward everyday community-level health and stability.
What this project is motivated by, and in many ways what it talks back to, are a number of policy initiatives and discussions that are turning to the figure of the climate refugee as an impending concern/threat. At a policy level, this frequently comes from a perspective of mitigating migration by building resilience in countries of origin, and with a focus on “managing” the movement of people by preventing them from migrating. These interventions operate from a logic of individual responsibilization and from a perspective of broad applicability that we find concerning.
We outline here key findings and related policy recommendations from multi-sited and team-based ethnographic fieldwork that has sought to understand how climate-related displacement intersects with and impacts health among Central American migrant populations. Over the summer of 2022, our team conducted multi-sited fieldwork at four sites in Honduras, Mexico, and the United States to examine how climate change, health, and migration intersect. Rather than “follow” the northward journey of Central Americans, our approach to research involves providing multiple, simultaneous snapshots of migrant experiences in several geographic regions. This methodological framework enables understanding of how the many stressors affecting health are layered and cumulative.
Climate change, ill health, and structural violence are inextricably intertwined. Based on interviews with migrants and care providers, individuals don’t isolate climate and health from the other interlocking factors that contribute to unlivable conditions in Honduras. For people already facing lack of stable employment, the constant threat of violence, the loss of access to land, governmental neglect and corruption, among other factors, an additional disaster or crisis is often what pushes them over the edge and forces them to migrate. This reality speaks to the fact that many people who engage in migration would prefer not to leave if conditions allowed.
This research contributes to a growing body of scholarship that raises concerns about the ways that alarmist discourses of climate-induced mass migration have been used to justify anticipatory migration management initiatives. In line with this prior scholarship, our research shows that climate migration is rarely a straightforward, linear process, and that while climatic disruptions are intensifying, they are not novel crises. Rather, how climatic disruptions shape migration is shaped by several intersecting and extended crises that shape both mobility and immobility.
Updating the system of international protection to recognize health and climate change as vectors of displacement that warrant protection. The system of international protection is not currently sufficiently responsive to climate and health-related dispossession, even though such factors overlap and entangle with other experiences of violence and persecution. While the United States has granted contingent legal status to some in recognition of particular disasters (such as extending Temporary Protected Status to Hondurans after 1998’s Hurricane Mitch), we are witnessing the growing importance of slow onset disasters as a factor producing forced migration. As such, we urge states and supra-national institutions to encompass such individuals within a refugee and asylum framework rather than through contingent and temporary forms of emergency protection.
Adapting humanitarian infrastructures to document how violence, climate, and health overlap to shape migration. Everyday humanitarian organizations are well-situated to document climate-related displacement, yet they are not adequately trained or equipped to do so. In part, this is because everyday humanitarian practice tends to be attuned to migrant’s experiences with violence. As our research has found, people in Honduras normalize climate and health-related emergencies as part of a suite of already ongoing, constant situations of crisis and emergency so they also do not have the language to emphasize this to care workers.
Measures of financial and institutional support should address root causes of migration. Interventions in Honduras aimed at addressing root causes of migration should be redirected towards ensuring stability which allows for greater tolerance for risk, including safety against dispossession (land ownership), health justice, crisis mitigation rather than reactivity, economic sustainability, governmental support, and personal safety. In relation, holistic stability is a major goal of such support rather than “magic bullet” individual level responsibilization (e.g. small-scale entrepreneurship). Existing interventions focus on migration as the problem rather than the consequence of other societal problems. As such, they overlook the multiple overlapping factors that lead to migration. Such stability might allow more forward thinking for people who do decide to stay. This involves changing the temporality of intervention to preparedness versus reactive policy. It is possible for people to adapt to climatic disruptions but currently there is no buffer nor a margin for error.