Guatemala City, Guatemala – The United States government plans to analyse the effects of climate change on migration, including potential legal protections – a move that migrant and refugee rights advocates say is a crucial step in the right direction.
In a February 4 executive order otherwise focused on refugee resettlement issues, US President Joe Biden instructed officials to examine climate-related displacement and migration and to submit a report within six months.
The report will discuss various aspects of climate-related migration, including ramifications on security and foreign aid. Importantly, it will also examine “options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change”.
The inclusion of climate-related migration and protections so early in Biden’s administration is an unexpected, unprecedented and welcome move, said Kayly Ober, who manages the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, an NGO based in Washington, DC.
“It is a big deal,” Ober told Al Jazeera. “This is an indication that the conversation has shifted.”
Regardless of how much progress is made on reducing carbon emissions, the effects of climate change will continue to displace millions of people, both internally and across borders.
Some 24 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters – which have worsened due to climate change – in 2019 alone, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
“The climate emergency is the defining crisis of our time. But less discussed is what is going to happen to the tens of millions of people on the front lines of this emergency,” said Andrew Harper, special adviser on climate action at the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
“We are already seeing more people being displaced by climate and extreme weather events than by conflict. There is no safe place from climate change, so we need to treat it as the global emergency that it is,” Harper told Al Jazeera.
In a report on Thursday, Refugees International offered guidance for the Biden administration on re-engaging with multilateral initiatives, minimising displacement and seeking regional solutions.
The report, At a Climate Change Crossroads, also detailed concrete recommendations related to migrant admissions and regularisation, including adjustments to Temporary Protected Status (TPS), one of the only protections in the US that can possibly be climate related.
TPS has allowed people from specific countries to remain in the US when their countries of origin were hit by environmental catastrophes, such as earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001 and Haiti in 2010, and a hurricane in Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998.
But the programme’s short-term renewable nature leaves some people in limbo for decades, and Refugees International said the US should make a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship available after five years.
The advocacy group also recommended the US government incorporate climate factors in its refugee eligibility determination system to reflect UNHCR considerations.
It said that could be done in a lesson plan provided to officials assessing eligibility, without the need for any legislative reform.
Some countries and regions have more inclusive refugee and asylum eligibility frameworks, but the international standard is the 1951 Refugee Convention established following WWII.
Climate change displacement does not fit with the admissibility criteria, which requires a well-founded fear of targeted persecution.
The UNHCR has noted, however, that convention protections may be applicable in some cases, particularly “where the effects of climate change and disaster interact with violence, conflict or persecution that lead to displacement”.
The situation is complicated by the fact that climate change is more often than not one contributing factor to displacement, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US-based think-tank, said in a policy brief last year.
That is the case for many Honduran migrants and asylum seekers fleeing north in recent months, following the widespread devastation from Eta and Iota, two hurricanes that swept through the region last November.
Any Ortega was one of hundreds of thousands of Hondurans displaced by flooding caused by the storms. Many have since been able to return home, but tens of thousands of people, including Ortega, are unable to do so.
When the hurricanes hit, Ortega and her family first lived under a bridge in northwest Honduras. But a lack of employment opportunities and government assistance drove Ortega to join a 7,500-strong migrant caravan last month.
“If I don’t work, she doesn’t eat,” Ortega said of her mother.
Guatemalan police and military forces disbanded the migrant caravan, but Ortega told Al Jazeera she made it past the checkpoints and about 35km into Mexico, where she was finally stopped by officials and sent back to Honduras.
While the willingness of the Biden administration to analyse climate-related migration and discuss potential protections is unprecedented, Refugees International’s Ober said it is important to remember that, at the moment, the order is just for a report.
“What is really important is how the report is framed,” she said, highlighting concerns the officials involved will focus on national security issues instead of taking a humanitarian approach.
The executive order directs the national security adviser to prepare the report in consultation with the director of national intelligence, the head of the US Agency for International Development, and the secretaries of state, defence and homeland security.
“It will be up to advocacy groups and people such as myself to hold them to account,” said Ober.