Policymakers often discuss climate and migration as separate issues, but they are intertwined: Climate change is a defining challenge of the 21st century, and migration shows its human face. This summer has put an exclamation point on that convergence. In the United States, fire, flood and extreme heat have forced people to flee their homes to survive and adapt. We share these experiences with people all over the world -- including in developing countries that have historically contributed far less to climate change than the United States, and whose governments have fewer resources for adaptation.
At the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) we are increasingly seeing people like Amin and Amina, from Yemen, who were forced off their land as a result of water scarcity and sought refuge in neighboring Jordan. They join a growing number of people globally who must leave home because of climate-related disasters like drought and sea level rise. The World Bank estimates that in the next 30 years, more than 140 million people in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia could be displaced. While most people are likely to resettle in their own countries and regions — and sustained foreign aid will be essential to help people safely resettle and rebuild their livelihoods — some people will be forced farther afield in search of safety.
Earlier this year, President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE issued an Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, acknowledging that these issues must be considered in tandem. IRAP and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have some thoughts on where to start. A report we released this week, in partnership with other advocacy groups, identifies several steps the Biden administration can take to protect people displaced by climate change right now.
First, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security should issue guidance clarifying that some climate-displaced people may already qualify for refugee status under existing U.S. law. Worldwide, the burdens of climate change fall most heavily on poor, Indigenous, and minority groups within countries, intersecting with and compounding other types of persecution that fit within the long-established refugee definition.
For example, an Indigenous Honduran woman whom we’ll call Isabel became the target of government persecution for her role in fighting to protect tribal lands and natural resources from government exploitation. Honduras has been rocked by climate upheaval in recent years —with last summer’s devastating back-to-back hurricanes and a multi-year drought -- and Indigenous people and poor rural populations have borne the brunt. Those on the front lines protecting the natural environment, like Isabel, often end up in the crosshairs of corrupt governmental and corporate actors as climate change constricts the amount of usable land and available resources.
Ultimately, Isabel won asylum in the United States on the basis of ethnic discrimination, political persecution, and her membership in the social groups of environmental defenders and Indigenous leaders. But the complex interactions between environmental injustice and other forms of persecution may not always be obvious, and when working under intense time pressure, immigration judges and officers may overlook people like Isabel with valid asylum claims. The Biden administration should provide the training, guidance, and resources to ensure that everyone with a valid claim can be heard. And it should finally end the Trump administration's heartless 'Title 42' policy of summarily turning people away at the border without giving them the chance to make asylum claims.
Second, the report recommends that the U.S. government make use of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to aid those displaced by climate change. TPS provides a temporary safe haven for designated foreign nationals in the United States who cannot safely return to their home countries because of environmental disaster, armed conflict, or other extraordinary conditions. Severely curtailed by the Trump administration, this status should immediately be redesignated for El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, and extended to Guatemala, as these nations continue to grapple with drought, severe storms, and widespread crop failure. While we ultimately need more pathways to resettlement and permanent residence, TPS is a life-saving temporary solution — and the Biden administration should use it.
Cutting the carbon pollution that fuels climate change may be humanity's most urgent task, but equitably adapting to the changes already underway is essential, too -- and for some, adaptation includes moving to safer ground. The Biden administration already has the tools to provide safe haven for some climate-displaced people and contribute to our national and global resilience right now. We believe these are good first steps as we work toward our shared survival.
Ama Francis is the Climate Displacement Project Strategist for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and Kate Desormeau is Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).