Source: AFP/Getty images.
Perhaps no region faces a graver threat from climate change than the Caribbean. For a region largely made up of island states, climate change represents an existential crisis. Without significant measures to curb global warming by large countries, projections forecast a dire future for the region. In fact, by 2050, the annual cost of inaction for the Caribbean in hurricane damages, tourism losses, and infrastructure damages could reach USD $22 billion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that without intervention, the impacts of climate change will likely render some small island nations uninhabitable this century. As a result, the disruptive nature of climate change will drive large-scale migration flows.
People in the Caribbean region are already on the move due to the effects of a warmer climate. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, in 2017 alone—after a particularly devastating Atlantic hurricane season—nearly 2 million people were internally displaced in the Caribbean. Even the World Bank’s conservative projections suggest by 2050, 216 million people from the poorest and most climate-vulnerable regions will be displaced due to both slow-onset events as well as sudden-onset natural disasters associated with climate change.
Small Island Developing States face multiple natural hazards as well as financial constraints that limit capacity-building resilience and adaptation strategies. These factors further increase their vulnerability in relation to other regions. Impacts associated with sea level rise, intense tropical cyclones, storm surge, saltwater intrusion, droughts, changing precipitation patterns, and coral bleaching are already degrading the Caribbean’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems, increasing food and water insecurity, and stressing regional economies and critical infrastructure. Indeed, according to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, Puerto Rico (1), Haiti (3), and the Bahamas (6) are three out of the ten countries and territories most affected by extreme weather events in the past two decades.
Despite having built an important network of agreements on migration and disaster risk management, other challenges—such as the impact of COVID-19—have significantly stalled progress. Indeed, long-standing economic and financial constraints are preventing the region from implementing much-needed mitigation, adaptation, and resilience measures to assuage potential large-scale migration events. In addition, with more people on the move, crimes associated with migration are on the rise. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to falling victim to crime when they move through illegal channels, have little access to legitimate employment, and lack legal status or social protections. Organized crime often subjects migrants to forced labor, criminal recruitment, sexual abuse, and other severe human rights violations. The absence of regular migratory pathways and poor state control over borders have further exacerbated this problem.
Although the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) explicitly recognizes that the adverse effects of climate change are influencing migration patterns, to date, there is no consensus definition nor international legal framework that concretely identifies or grants protection to people moving due to or in the context of climate change. Establishing a definition is a complex technical task and a highly sensitive political issue. For example, someone fleeing Haiti’s security and economic crises may be considered a refugee or an economic migrant rather than an environmental migrant or climate refugee—despite Haiti’s concurrent climate-related challenges. But what do we call the Bahamians or Dominicans (from Dominica) that moved to Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, or the United States after Hurricanes Dorian and Maria destroyed their homes? What about the estimated 129,000 Puerto Ricans that fled in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to the Continental United States or the rural Dominicans (from the Dominican Republic) migrating to Santo Domingo as the effects of climate change ravage their livelihoods? Do they all fall under the same category?
Environmental migrant, climate migrant, or climate refugee are just three of the multiple terms used to describe this group. However, the terms are often poorly defined and used interchangeably despite their use having distinct legal and political repercussions. What then is the difference between environmental migrants, climate migrants, and climate refugees?
Despite the differences and complexity, we believe that framing “climate migration” is important as it underscores the unique challenge that climate change poses to the Caribbean and acknowledges the interrelated nature of the causes for the movement of persons. Unlike the term “climate refugee,” “climate migrant”—first introduced by the International Organization for Migration—recognizes the different types of population movements associated with climate change, as well as corresponding, disparate, and self-reinforcing drivers of movement. The Caribbean has a multi-causal relationship between human mobility that includes political, economic, and social factors as well as and natural hazards that further entangle the nexus between climate change and migration. Implementing a term that recognizes the overlapping nature of these relationships allows policymakers to better comprehend and produce policies that account for a phenomenon which will worsen in the coming decades.
Although climate migration remains a largely internal process, there are a number of reports suggesting growing cross-border trends. Recent studies have shown an association between slow-onset environmental degradation processes and international migration in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Likewise, the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Caribbean correlates with an increase in regular migration to the United States. As a result, new international, regional, and national frameworks will be required to regulate the movement of people and provide protection. Failure to provide a concrete definition and legal framework will further complicate an already complex issue.
Caribbean countries and the United States—currently the main destination for Caribbean migrants—as well as regional organizations, international institutions, development agencies, and international lawmakers must cooperate and coordinate to develop migration policies to account for the complex web of challenges that the human part of the equation presents. These challenges require thoughtful and innovative solutions. Yet, constructing a set of recommendations will invariably touch upon politically sensitive issues—ranging from admission numbers and processes to resource allocation and citizen security. This requires recognizing the pressing need to offer forward-thinking updates to multilateral immigration policy to account for the effects of climate change. It will also require the United States, European Union, China, and other large economies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, any substantive policy strategy requires Caribbean countries and their partners to consider prevention and planning measures as well as governance options.
For more information and recommendations as well as an analysis of the impacts of climate change on the Caribbean’s indigenous and tribal peoples, read the full report.
Alejandro Trenchi is a Research Assistant at Global Americans for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.
Jackson Mihm is an Associate Editor at Global Americans and the Project Lead for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.