25 Oct 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Curbing environmentally unsafe, irregular and disorderly migration

REUTERS/Giulia Paravicini

Many people would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the city of Tapachula in southern Mexico, or northern Angola’s Lucapa town on a blank map.

In recent weeks, thousands of migrants have either arrived in the former, or been expelled from the latter, yet again bringing to the fore the polarized nature of migration—an issue which has gained prominence in recent years by the cross-Mediterranean migration to Europe.

Lying south of Mexico, the three Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have in recent years experienced a surge in the number of emigrants destined for Mexico with the hope of ending up in the United States.

Popularly known as the Northern Triangle, the three countries are also home to the Dry Corridor, a region highly prone to drought whose residents are largely dependent on smallholder agriculture for their livelihoods.

The corridor is a tropical dry forest region on the Pacific side of Central America that stretches from the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, to the western parts of Costa Rica and Panama. Known for its irregular rainfall, it has become one of the world’s regions that are most susceptible to climate change.

The drought in Central America has caused the loss of livelihoods Credit: REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

An inter-agency study published in 2017 found a strong correlation between prolonged droughts in the three countries and an increase in irregular migration to the United States.

“Emigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras returned by the Mexican authorities to their respective countries of origin were primarily men (79 per cent) and 50 per cent of them were working in the agricultural sector before migrating,” the study said.

Halfway across the world, Angola is one of the leading diamond producers both in terms of value and volume and Lucapa, near its northern frontier, has for years witnessed a steady flow of migrants from neighbouring DR Congo.

The miners, who have emigrated to engage in artisanal diamond mining, have mainly been attracted by the lack of a strict regulatory mechanism.

However, their activities have found them at odds with the host country authorities, and sections of the local community, who are seeking to attract private large-scale commercial investment in diamond mining. This resulted in thousands of migrant miners being expelled by the authorities since the beginning of October.

In June, Member States approved the United Nation’s first compact on global migration which is set to be adopted at an intergovernmental meeting of heads of states in Marrakech, Morocco on 10 and 11 December 2018. The process that led to this compact began in 2016 when the UN General Assembly convened a high-level meeting to build international consensus to address the growing challenge of international migration and the increasing flow of refugees.

In part, the Compact recognizes that environmental change in communities may have implications for, or result from, migration. It also seeks among other things to develop adaptation and resilience to natural disasters, effects of climate change and environmental degradation such as desertification, land degradation, drought and sea level rise, especially in countries from which migrants originate.

“We have in recent years seen an increase in migration and displacement occurring due to conflict, persecution, worsening environmental conditions and a profound lack of human security and livelihood opportunities,” says Saidou Hamani, Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Coordinator in UN Environment’s Regional Office for Africa.

“Environmental degradation, albeit under-reported, is one of the significant causes of displacement. Consequently, redressing it needs to be part of the solutions put forward by countries, the private sector and civil society,” he adds.

According to the Frontiers 2017 report, published by UN Environment, “In 2016, about 31.1 million people were newly displaced within their own countries because of conflicts, violence and natural disasters—the latter responsible for 24.2 million of them.”

This reality of natural disasters was also clearly expressed for people living in the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu, when in 2016, Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, speaking at the UN General Assembly, warned of the likelihood of Tuvaluans having to be relocated due to rising seas, water shortages and other threats to their homes.

This situation appears to have worsened in the subsequent year.

“In 2017 alone, 18.8 million people in 135 countries were newly displaced in the context of sudden-onset disasters within their own country. This is in addition to millions already living in displacement following previous disasters; between 2008 and 2016 an estimated 227.6 million people were displaced by disasters,” said the UN Migration Agency in its Global Migration Indicators Report published in 2018.

Drought and irregular rainfall have partly contributed to a wave of Central American migrants heading towards Mexico REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The scale and pace of human mobility, coupled with a global population that is predicted to peak at more than 9 billion by the middle of this century, represents a new demographic reality.

“We need to address the environmental causes and consequences of displacement and migration in the region. Understanding the extent, and depth, to which they affect livelihoods is equally important,” says Hamani.

UN Environment, as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, is working to promote a coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system and has served as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. It has also been part of the Global Migration Group, the main UN platform for inter-agency cooperation on migration and displacement.

For more information, please contact Saidou.Hamani[at]un.org.