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As climate change spurs migration, Biden urged to weigh new protections

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 July 2021 13:26 GMT

Members of an asylum-seeking migrant family wait to be transported by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in La Joya, Texas, U.S. April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

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People who migrate across national borders as a result of climate change impacts have few legal protections - something advocacy groups say needs to change

* U.S. look at cross-border migration threats due in August

* Advocacy group pushes for new protections for climate migrants

* Republican pushback likely against proposed changes

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to tackle the thorny issue of cross-border migration related to climate change, he is set to run headlong into political and legal realities, analysts warned this week.

Biden's national security team has been tasked with reporting back to him on climate-related migration threats by early August. The issue has taken on new urgency amid reports of surging heat deaths in Arizona among illegal migrants arriving from Mexico.

But House Republicans have staunchly warned they will not back major changes to existing migrant rules, arguing tighter immigration controls have made the country safer.

Currently migrants who flee their homes and countries as a result of climate change have no international legal status - something the president and other world leaders need to address as climate impacts strengthen, refugee advocates said.

In a report released Wednesday, Refugees International recommended the administration consider new legal protections for cross-border migrants fleeing climate pressures, as well as more financial assistance to help them remain at home.

The report urges "the administration to aim high at a time when the politics generally and politics around this issue often force decision-makers to aim not so high," said Eric Schwartz, president of the non-profit group, which advocates for displaced populations.

The group's task force, made up of more than a dozen non-profit leaders, former government officials and other experts, recommended the U.S. government recognize that climate-driven migrants may be entitled to protection under international refugee law.

They also urged the administration and Congress to write special climate accommodations into U.S. refugee and asylum laws.

Central American migrants are tied together with a zip tie as they are apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico, in La Joya, Texas, U.S., June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Go Nakamura


The recommendations amount to uncharted territory for the United States and much of the world, analysts said.

Neither international nor U.S. refugee laws recognize environmental or climate pressures as valid reasons for migrants to claim refugee status because of grave dangers to their lives or to their freedoms in their home country.

Judging whether someone left home largely because of climate impacts is also difficult, as many migrants are driven by a range of pressures - though that may change as future sea level rise, heat or other pressures make parts of the world uninhabitable, climate experts say.

"I think the Biden administration has unlimited opportunity to change, essentially, the game around climate change migration and displacement issues," said Kayly Ober who directed the Refugees International task force.

The task force said Biden's team should consider climate change threats when making decisions on shielding migrants from deportation and look at expanding the use of visas to respond to climate-related migration pressures.

The administration also should boost funding for international efforts to adapt to climate change, and assist other countries in crafting their own internal displacement and relocation policies, it said.

"I don't discount the fact that these issues can be politically charged – they can be. But that doesn't mean we should flee from sensible policy proposals," Schwartz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the August deadline approaches, a senior Biden administration official told the Thomson Reuters Foundation a "thorough review" was underway of whether new legal protections for migrants might be necessary, but said it was premature to comment until the report is finished.

Biden has made clear through several executive orders that "climate considerations are an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security, and an area in which the United States intends to be a global leader," the official said, noting they were not authorized to talk on the record.

As the administration has struggled to contain a surge of migrants venturing across the U.S.-Mexico border, officials have not shied away from making a connection between climate change and migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is helping lead an examination of root causes of migration to the United States, said in a May speech that a "lack of climate adaptation and climate resilience" were key drivers of migration from Central America.


But policy shifts as far-reaching as expanding refugee protections to accommodate climate migrants will meet stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress.

They say stricter refugee and asylum policies under former U.S. President Donald Trump made the country safer.

"The Biden Administration must not seek to expand this definition through administrative action, nor should it participate in the attempts by certain activist groups to expand the traditional and legal understanding of ‘refugee,'" more than two dozen House Republicans wrote in a February letter.

Ober acknowledged that changes requiring congressional support would be politically tricky.

"There may be limitations to that politically right now, but I think it's important to at least set the goal that we should all kind of be steering towards," she said.

Worldwide, climate displacement within national borders has been a more pressing concern than cross-border issues.

The World Bank has estimated that unchecked climate change could cause more than 140 million people to move within their countries' borders by 2050 in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

The European Union has been closely examining climate-driven cross-border migration, but most wealthy countries have been slow to enact specific protections for people who are displaced by environmental pressures.

The Biden administration has a chance to take a leading role in shifting that, said Taylor Dimsdale with E3G, a climate change-focused think tank.

"It's a material difference just to recognize and acknowledge the problem that climate change has a role to play in displacement and migration," said Dimsdale, director of the group's risk and resilience program.

Related stories:

As seas rise, coastal communities face hard choices over 'managed retreat' 

Extreme weather was the biggest reason for people to flee homes in 2020

Climate change could create 63 million migrants in South Asia by 2050

(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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