Disasters, environmental degradation, and the adverse impacts of climate change are increasingly influencing patterns of migration and displacement in the Americas and the Caribbean. In 2022, there were 2.6 million new internal displacements due to disasters across the continent, mainly resulting from storms and floods. Brazil (708,000 new displacements), the United States (675,000), and Colombia (281,000) were the countries most affected by this phenomenon.
Addressing this environmental mobility requires a human rights perspective, which has significantly advanced in recent years. This approach places migrants, displaced people, and communities at the heart of concerns, highlighting that environmental changes and their consequences on human mobility patterns can result in human rights violations.
Despite the absence of a specific convention addressing the rights of environmental migrants, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights published Resolution 3.21 on climate emergency in 2022, which highlights the obligations for the state to protect the rights of people on the move in the context of climate change. In January 2023, Chile and Colombia requested an advisory opinion on Climate Emergency and Human Rights from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to complement this process.
The human rights approach to environmental mobility undergoes constant evolution in response to the growing prominence and accelerated effects of climate change on our lives. However, we can identify five key elements in its development:
- Disregarding social and environmental rights can act as an adverse displacement factor. Given the vulnerability and exposure of the region's countries to unfavorable environmental changes, populations can face gaps in their environmental rights. Communities affected by water scarcity due to drought or glacier melt, where the right to water is lost, or coastal communities where rising sea levels or coastal erosion result in the loss of access to decent housing, are an example of this first consideration.
- Environmental and climate displacement processes require a protection-focused approach. Conditions created by sudden disasters in terms of loss of security, livelihoods, and access to resources create scenarios of potential rights gaps that require an integrated approach by states. The 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement identify disasters as sources of displacement and include key elements to address these movements from a rights perspective.
- The impact of disasters, environmental degradation, climate change on human mobility is fundamentally linked to gender dynamics. The effects of climate change affect diverse groups differently, considering previous factors of inequality, discrimination, role assignment, and access to resources. In the Caribbean and Central America, as in every region of the world, women have a differentiated exposure to climate-related disasters. Due to pre-existing gender inequalities, they often face barriers to leaving disaster-prone areas, and may stay behind because of their obligations as care givers.
- The continent's indigenous populations present specific vulnerabilities and capacities, but also particular fundamental rights implications: Prior, free, and informed consent is a specific right of Indigenous Peoples recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and requires the agreement of the affected populations on projects that concern them. An example is the consented support IOM provides to livelihood projects in four communities affected by environmental changes, identified with the active participation of the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute.
- Protecting the rights of migrants in contexts of disaster, environmental degradation, and climate change requires comprehensive solutions that involve multiple counterparts. While most environmental and climate mobility occurs within countries – characterized as internal mobility – disasters and environmental change also trigger cross-border movements. Some examples come from the 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean or the impact of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America. These scenarios of cross-border mobility require an integrated rights-based protection approach that involves migration actors and disaster risk management entities, among others.
Governments in the Americas and the Caribbean have made strides in protecting environmental migrants at the regional level thanks to joint efforts within the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM) and the South American Conference on Migration (SACM), and these advancements have been recognized as best practices. However, regional developments covering these five aspects are still needed, and the clock of climate change, far from stopping, seems to be accelerating.
Pablo Escribano is the Regional Thematic Specialist on Migration, Environment and Climate Change in the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean of IOM.