Climate change and migration in Mexico: Fifth in our series

Climate change is driving an increasing number of Latin Americans northwards toward Mexico and to the United States.


Migration from Central America and Mexico to the United States has tapered off in recent years, especially since 2010.  In fact, Mexico now has net negative migration with the U.S., as American policy—first under Barack Obama and now under Donald Trump—ramped up deportations. Between 250,000-400,000 undocumented immigrants were returned to their countries of origin per year in the past decade, while the numbers of people heading north remained steady at around 200,000 per year.

Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to how much that may change as a result of extreme weather caused by climate change.

Experts in Mexico agree that while climate change is a factor in migration, its effects have not been well documented.  The reports that exist on climate change and migration tend to focus on the security aspect to the U.S. and its borders, not on internal nor transitory migration within Mexico.

But many of the 15 models Mexico has created on climate change have predicted massive increases in internal migration.  At the same time, Mexico is struggling with re-integrating returning Mexicans and dealing with an increase in Central American transitory migrants, creating a double burden just as the threat of climate-change-induced migration is growing.

Former president Felipe Calderón said, “Mexico is uniquely vulnerable to climate change.”  The country is losing 400 square miles of land to desertification each year, forcing an estimated 80,000 farmers to migrate according to a 2013 report from the Woodrow Wilson Center.  The country is also faced with intense flooding, especially in Tabasco, decreasing water supplies, mainly in the north, and an increased hurricane risk given the country’s position on the edge of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico—all likely to increase as a result of climate change.

Mexican migration has always been different from other countries. Normal migratory routes run from rural areas, to small cities, to large cities, to international borders.  In Mexico, though, migrants move directly from rural areas to an international border because of well-established networks.

The newest migratory trend in Mexico is transitory migration.  The definition of transitory migration varies, but includes certain forms of temporary migration: migrants who keep moving from country-to-country such as on the Guatemala-Mexico border, irregular migration, which is usually referred to as “illegal” immigration without documents and circular migration.  Although the majority of migrants in Mexico arrive from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the latest trends include migrants from countries as diverse as Ghana, Nepal and Haiti.

Mexico’s 2011 Migrant Law, amended in 2012, eased processes for migrants to enter the country.  During this period, it became increasingly difficult to enter the U.S., as the federal government’s policy switched to focusing on those already in the country and catching recent arrivals close to the border.  The U.S. deported a record 409,000 migrants in 2012.  As a result, many transitory migrants have remained in Mexico, a country struggling with internal security, especially against organized crime and drug traffickers.  States such as Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guerrero, and Chiapas are increasingly dangerous for U.S-bound migrants, who risk being kidnapped, raped, trafficked, press-ganged into working for gangs, or killed.

As a result of the challenges of entering the U.S., migration is increasing internal pressures in Mexico, especially in Northern border states like Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.  Migrants who used to arrive in Mexico and work in the agricultural sector (typically cultivating coffee) now work in diversified fields such as construction and the service industries (especially restaurants, hotels and low-end healthcare).  People fleeing violence, mainly from El Salvador and Honduras, are increasingly seeking refugee status in Mexico.  In 2016 alone, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a RefugiadosCOMAR) issued more protection forms than it had between 2002 and 2013.

Those pressures are likely to build, forcing more people to seek refuge from extreme weather events.

Interplay of natural disasters and migration

2007 Tabasco Flooding

Between October and November 2007, the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas suffered severe flooding.  At one stage, 80% of Tabasco was under water.  The expansive flooding was largely caused by land sinking over time, although some reports also linked the massive floods to climate change, increased sea levels and poor management of hydroelectric dams.

Twenty thousand people were forced to seek emergency shelter and over a million were affected.  Banana and cacao crops were totally destroyed, forcing the estimated 30,000 farmers and crop pickers in the region to migrate in search of work.

1998 Hurricane Mitch

Hurricane Mitch was responsible for 80 deaths and between $2 to $2.5 billion in damage.  The effects on Honduras were worse, with 7,000 dead, 11,000 missing, 1.5 million homeless and its economy set back 50 years (according to then-president Carlos Flores).  The hurricane wiped out almost $4 billion of infrastructure, mainly crops, triggering outward migration; between 1990 and 2000, the Honduran population in the U.S. more than doubled.

The hurricane also wreaked havoc on the state of Chiapas forcing transitory migrants to seek out alternative routes through Mexico.  Hondurans came instead through Petén in Guatemala, placing them at risk of drug traffickers and organized crime groups such as the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloas and Los Zetas.  The result was a number of massacres where migrants were caught up in drug cartel turf wars.  Guerrero, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and San Fernando, Tamaulipas were all scenes of mass killings where migrants were reported to have been victims.

In 2010, 72 migrants were abducted from several buses and killed in the village of El Huizacha, near San Fernando in Tamaulipas by members of Los Zetas drug cartel.    Investigators reported that the victims were killed because they refused to work for Los Zetas.  Federal authorities arrested 17 local policemen and indicted seven for assisting Los Zetas.

This did not stop the deaths of migrants.  Between April 6 and June 7, 2011 Mexican authorities found 193 bodies in clandestine mass graves in San Fernando.  Witnesses spoke of a similar method as the previous year, with buses being hijacked on the Mexican Federal Highway 101 and migrants being abducted from bus queues.

Following the massacre, Mexican authorities announced a “Migrant Protection Plan,” which saw federal agencies combine to clamp down on human traffickers and streamlined kidnapping cases in the judicial system.

Other hurricanes

Internal migration caused by climate change has also been seen following flooding after Hurricane Pauline in 1997 and Hurricane Frank/Tropical Storm Matthew in 2010.

Preparations for the future

Mexico has been a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since March 1994 and signed the Kyoto protocol in February 2005.

Under former president Felipe Calderón, Mexico established itself at the vanguard of climate change in the region. The government created  a national framework and passed laws to address the issue.  Mexico has a General Law of Climate change (Ley General de Cambio ClimáticoLGCC, 2012) which standardizes climate change action at the federal, state and municipal levels.  Additionally, Article 22 of the National Planning Law (Ley de Planeación) states that all climate change programs need to be compatible with the National Development Program (Programa Nacional de DesarrolloPND).

Also in 2012, Mexico’s Congress approved legislation to prepare for the implementation of so-called REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) by updating the 1988 Environmental Law and the 2003 Sustainable Forest Development law.

The 2012 LGCC law led to the development of public policies such as the National Climate Change Strategy (Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático, 2013) that created greenhouse gas emission goals for the next 10, 20 and 40 years.  There is also a Special Program of Climate Change (Programa Especial de Cambio Climático, 2014) that defines what actions the ENCC can take.  Finally there is the National Climate Change System (Sistema Nacional de Cambio ClimáticoSINACC).

The LGCC prompted the formation of the Inter-Secretarial Commission for Climate Change (Comisión Intersecretarial de Cambio ClimáticoCICC), which incorporates 14 different bodies to discuss development, evaluation and implementation of policy with the Council of Climate Change (Consejo de Cambio Climático—C3).  The 13 experts who make up C3 assist with the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, the technical arm of the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

SEMARNAT concluded that Mexico needs at least $9 billion 2012-2020 to meet its goals for addressing man-made climate change.

In terms of climate-related migration, the Migrant Law of 2011-2012 replaced the 1974 General Law of Population that laid out the rules governing migration to, from, and through Mexico. The 1974 law criminalized anyone who entered or stayed in Mexico without authorization and, although rarely enforced, became a tool for corrupt border officials.  The 2011 law, amended in 2012, is Mexico’s attempt at a 21st Century (read: human rights-conscious) migratory law and is backed up by a new Refugees and Complementary Protection Law.  Although the newer law has stronger human rights elements, it has proven difficult to uphold in the face of organized crime and corruption.

As for multi-laterals in Mexico, both the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) are active.  Along with CEPAL they have generated information on migrant flows and policies.  Given Mexico’s prominent role, along with Switzerland with the United Nations, they have received funds from the Global Fund for Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund (FVC).  They have helped in the creation of a nascent market for carbon emissions and green bonds (MexiCO2 platform).

As Adriana Sletza Ortega Ramírez, professor at the Faculty of Rights/Social sciences at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) said, “Progress has been made in climate change legislation and some plans, but it is not linked to migration.  At a recent meeting of the SRE (Secretariat for Foreign Affairs) the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) mentioned that for the moment UNFPA is only financing research in Mexico and Central America on migration and climate change.  Whether this reaches migrants we will have to see.”  In Mexico, coordinating efforts addressing climate change and migration—two issues that will become increasingly inter-connected in coming years—has been frustratingly lacking.

What’s lacking?

Aside from RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) reports from 2010 and 2012, an IPCC special report, “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”, the 2013 Woodrow Wilson Center report, and a couple of national investigations—from Bancomer in 2011 and a project on climate change and migration from Ibero Puebla-BUAP—investigations into the issue of migration and climate change in Mexico have occurred almost exclusively at the local level.

Despite receiving significant financing, Mexico does not have the ability to prioritize and identify projects and programs, nor are there mechanisms to allow the various actors described above to interact and form coherent, transparent policies.  Essentially, Mexico is stuck between goal-setting on climate change and identifying regional and national needs.  The ENCC established the majority of national requirements on climate change, but there are communication and structural issues preventing their application at the local level.  The lack of a roadmap, combined with ineffective organization of projects and disagreement on how to measure their effectiveness, leaves Mexico at risk of flying blind when it comes to climate change.

Much of Mexico’s climate-change action has occurred at the federal level.  At the state and municipal levels, the results have been more haphazard.  Organizations compiling reports on climate change in Mexico have had to pay for municipal statistics and record keeping (if they exist at all). Even though municipalities are required by the LGCC to have a climate action plan, according to ICLEI 2017 data, only 446 out of 2,446 Mexican municipalities have these plans or are in the process of completing them.  There is no organization or body to monitor the implementation of these action plans, nor is there disaggregated monitoring of mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Marcela López-Vallejo Olvera, professor and climate change expert at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), said,  “A recurring problem that has not been solved is the measurement of financing for mitigation and adaptation. The federation’s budget has several items related to climate change, but we do not know how much money goes to each strategy.”

Another issue with record keeping has been with the amount of migrants in Mexico.  According to official data from the 2010 census, there are only 250,000 migrants in Mexico, but the true figure falls between 1.5 and 2.5 million, with some estimates putting it as high as four million.

Mexico has struggled with reintegrating returning migrants and deportees from the U.S. into Mexican society.  There have been efforts such as “Somos Mexico,” a program for reintegration and assisting children with no paperwork to get registered with the Mexican Education Ministry, but, as Schiavon admitted, “We have the right laws in Mexico but we have the wrong human capital to make sure these laws guarantee an ordered and humane migration process.  We have practically nothing for returning Mexicans, who number two million in the last eight years. There’s practically nothing for them. The truth is it’s not working.”

As the effects of man-made climate change begin to drive an increasing number of Latin Americans northwards toward Mexico and the U.S., improving infrastructure for coping with the influx of migrants should be a priority for the Mexican government.

Projected consequences of inaction

The lack of agile planning and allocation of appropriate funds in Mexico today will make it difficult to respond to a natural disaster in the future.

With insufficient policies to assist returning migrants and deportees, Mexico is at risk of a political crisis as returning Mexicans (many of whom left the country as children) are increasingly struggling to reintegrate into society, especially if President Trump cracks down on undocumented migrants and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.

As López-Vallejo Olvera said, “If we do not do focus on prioritizing and measuring projects, we risk that the big strategies and programs are not implemented, increasing vulnerability at the local level.”

What should be done?

  • Increase awareness of climate change on migration and dissemination of information, coordination and management, vulnerability assessment, managed migration and data collection. This requires public access to information and management of projects, especially at a state and municipal level.
  • Create a single institution at the national level to review, accredit, and monitor projects, access and manage international funds, combine resources and coordinate with other climate change decision makers.
  • Switch emphasis to adaptation and prevention of climate change effects. The current financial system risks wasting funds and delivering poor results. It is farmers and rural workers who are most at risk of climate change and who would migrate both outwardly and internally, and the Mexican government needs to prepare for these inevitable displacements.
  • Facilitate reinsertion of returning migrants and deportees into their communities. This could include credits for creating a business or building a home, assistance with recognition of the qualifications gained abroad, and assistance for the children of migrants who are re-entering the education system.
  • Enhance legal support through the consular system for Mexicans in the U.S. facing deportation. This could include an awareness program for their rights or financial assistance for those who have savings, a home or mortgage.  There are millions of Mexicans who have been in the US for 10 or more years and are now under threat of deportation.

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