Environmental changes have always been a driving force for migration. From natural disasters to drought and flooding, changes in the environment impact lives and livelihoods, forcing people to abandon their homes. Over the last 40 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people forced to migrate as a result of environmental factors. Catastrophic storms are more common, areas suffering from prolonged drought have tripled in the last 40 years, and rising sea levels put coastal communities at risk. By 2050, the International Office of Migration estimates that as many as 250 million people could be displaced as the result of environmental impacts. Unlike those displaced by war or systemic violence, people forcibly displaced as the result of environmental change are rarely recognized as refugees when they cross borders.
Forced migration due to effects of climate change will impact all countries. The United States could see 13 million people internally displaced as a result of rising sea levels by 2045, especially along the east and gulf coasts. The majority of the communities facing permanent inundation are socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Around the globe, drought has already led to displacement and related social tensions as rural communities are forced to move to urban areas. The origins of social conflict and violence are certainly complex, but as climate change forces the movement of people, tensions increase. In Syria, for example, “record drought and massive crop failure beginning in 2006 led to the mass migration of predominately Sunni farmers to Alawi-dominated cities, increasing sectarian tensions and generating conflicts over diminished resources.” Rising food prices in 2007 and 2008, from drought and increased transportation costs, led to protests across the globe, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The UN estimates 144 million people were driven into poverty by the increase in food prices by 2011. In Niger alone, 5.1 million people became food “insecure.”
In Haiti the intersection of environmental degradation, climate change and forced migration is apparent. At the root of this crisis is the transformation of the rural economy that began under the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. Haiti’s economy was re-engineered as an export platform to feed U.S. interests, from agriculture to banking. By the mid-20th century deforestation, soil erosion, insecure land tenure and population growth was driving an exodus from rural areas to cities. However, in the last 30 years these trends have accelerated. Under pressure to lower tariffs for imports from the United States, Haiti saw the local market for staple crops such as rice collapse. De-forestation accelerated, leading to a situation today where only 3% of Haiti’s tree canopy remains. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced, forced into urban areas not equipped to handle the influx of people. Today, less than half of Port-au-Prince’s population was born there. Areas like Cite Soleil, with over 400,000 people, are overcrowded and under-resourced. The rapid growth of insecure building and overcrowding is the reason that the 2010 earthquake was so deadly, killing up to 300,000 people.
People migrating to major cities like Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien are in effect moving to coastal areas. Here rising seas, more intense storms, and areas of extreme drought combine to create a recipe for recurrent disasters. Mudslides in 2004 killed tens of thousands of people near Gonaives, as treeless hillsides collapsed on the city. Every new storm brings with it the risk of crop failure, flooding and further soil erosion. Overcrowding has also increased the risks of disease. When UN troops introduced cholera in to Haiti in 2010, the disease spread rapidly, killing 9,400 individuals and infecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Interconnected with the process of internal displacement is outward migration. Nearly one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, primarily seeking work on sugar plantations and other agricultural positions. Tensions have resurfaced in recent years leading to mass expulsions of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, whose government denied citizenship to people of Haitian descent. Over the last thirty years, the United States has been the primary destination for Haitians with 650,000 people moving to the U.S. since 1986. However, tensions have mounted within the U.S. over immigration – leading to the suspension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which covered over 50,000 Haitian migrants. Meanwhile, other countries with less restrictive policies are becoming a destination. It is estimated that close to 105,000 Haitians, equivalent to 1% of the population, moved to Chile alone last year.
The confluence of environmental degradation, climate change, and forced migration in Haiti is part of a global process driving people into insecure situations; exacerbating political conflicts and violence. There is no easy solution. Clearly, binding agreements to reduce emissions and move the planet away from a fossil fuel based economy is necessary. Even if this is acheived, the process must be inclusive. Alternative fuels are no panacea if accompanied by the expansion of extractive industries and agricultural practices that further drive forced migration. In the interim, people are already being forced to migrate.
International law is behind the times
The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The Convention does not cover people who are forced to migrate due to environmental reasons when they cross borders. The result is a variety of short-term measures, such as TPS in the United States, that affords very little protection to people whose status can change overnight. Within the United States, at least, there needs to be more effort to craft lasting solutions, that offer people who previously migrated an opportunity to seek permanent residency.
Currently there are efforts to recraft refugee and migrant laws. For example, the United Nations’ International Office of Migration is overseeing the creation of A Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The draft compact should be completed this year. However, enforcement mechanisms will be limited. In the United States and Europe in particular, migration is re-crafted as a crisis for the receiving country and thus there is resistance to any kind of binding obligations to accept more people. Given the current political environment it is not surprising that Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Compact negotiating process in December last year.
Until there are binding protections afforded to migrants as well as binding agreements to ameliorate the worst impacts of climate change, the world will face increasing migration, accompanied by ongoing political conflict. The current zero-sum, nationalistic orientation of so many, who view migrants as a threat rather than as fellow human beings in need of solidarity, continues to infect any effort for change. We must be better than this.
Given the pace of anti-immigration news over the past several months, the termination of another immigration initiative should hardly come as a surprise, but the announced wind-down over the next year of the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians hardly made a blip on the radar of national news. This change is further evidence of the current administration’s wanton disregard for the lives of those who come to the United States to carry on their lives with dignity and hope.
Rewire.News supplies answers to many questions in an excellent piece from last week titled: “What is Deferred Enforced Departure? It’s Complicated.” Here are a few answers to a couple of basic questions from that piece:
How do you receive DED status?
According to an official from USCIS, eligibility requirements for DED are up to the discretion of the president and any relevant requirements established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Applicants for immigration benefits are subject to criminal and national security background checks, but DED differs from other benefits in that there is no formal application process.
“There is no form associated with DED. This means they do not apply for DED but are instead covered by DED,” a USCIS official said in an emailed statement to Rewire.News.
How many Liberian DED beneficiaries are there?
Because there is no application or registration for DED, the official number of Liberian DED recipients is unknown. According to USCIS, the maximum number of Liberians covered by DED would be approximately 3,600, the number of Liberians who held TPS when it was terminated in 2007. Roughly 840 Liberian DED recipients who applied for and currently have work authorization will be affected by Trump’s decision to end DED for Liberia.
The relatively small number of Liberian DED recipients means that the impact on the national level is minimal, but we must think about the context in order to understand why this case matters.
To begin with, Liberian history is directly linked to the U.S. institutions of slavery and colonialism dating to the pre-Civil War era. In the face of a growing population of freed black slaves in the abolitionist northern region of the United States, the American Colonization Society proposed to create a nation in Africa where freed slaves could live. This process of colonial settlement of a diverse population of freed slaves started in 1820 and resulted in conflict between a new ruling class of Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples of the region. The government was led by Americo-Liberians from the nation’s founding in 1847 until 1980. The other 95% of the population, descended from local ethnic groups rather than the descendants of settlers from the United States, was totally excluded from power.
A coup d’etat in 1980 marked a shift in political power. The resulting instability and struggle would lead to two civil wars and death of 250,000 people.
Although the country has been in a process of recovery for the past 15 years or so, an Ebola outbreak in 2014 created further pressure for people to leave. Economic restructuring has led Liberia to have one of the highest levels of foreign investment as a percentage of GDP in the world. The resulting growth of concessions to foreign extractive industries since 2006 has displaced tens of thousands of people. As a result of the wars and crises that have followed, many people have been traumatized and can hardly be blamed for seeking new beginnings elsewhere.
Since the political consequences of this U.S. colonial enterprise continue to affect Liberia even today, the United States should accept its responsibility to provide – if not reparations – at least a welcoming policy for any Liberian who seeks life in the United States.
Moreover, apart from the particular gravity of the Liberian case, there is another important pattern to observe in the immigration decisions made by this administration. All of the immigration program suspensions and wind-downs that have been announced in the past year – Central American Minors, TPS for many countries, DED for Liberia – share a common feature: they target immigrants who come from places other than Europe. #45, who has been married to two women from Eastern Europe, seems to be unconcerned about European migration to the United States and has even reportedly suggested that he would be happy with fewer people arriving from Haiti and Africa, and more from places like Norway. (DACA represents a minor deviation from this general practice, since 0.7% of Dreamers were born in Europe.)
Finally, if the President actually had any level of concern about a vulnerable population from a particular place, it would be within the power of the office to allow them to remain in the U.S. legally under DED. Any statement he makes to blame others for the brutal and inhumane immigration policies of his administration is simply empty rhetoric. And ending DED for Liberia serves as one more example of a pattern of abuse of some of the most resilient – yet vulnerable – among us. Our place is to stand alongside these neighbors and not to allow them to be forgotten when the next Tweet comes along.
Part IV of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series
Myriam Merlet was considered one of Haiti’s most prominent leaders and catalysts of the women’s rights movement. Merlet was one of the 300,000 people who perished in the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. As part of our series on inspirational and influential women, we take a look at her work as an advocate for gender equality and the rights of women facing sexual violence.
In the 70s, Merlet left Haiti and sought refuge in Canada, where she studied economics, women’s issues, feminist theory, and political sociology. Upon the completion of her studies, Merlet returned to Haiti in the mid 1980s, stating, “While I was abroad I felt the need to find out who I was and where my soul was. I chose to be a Haitian woman. We’re a country in which three-fourths of the people can’t read and don’t eat properly. I’m an integral part of the situation…as a Haitian woman, I must make an effort so that all together we can extricate ourselves from them [the problems].” Upon returning to Haiti, Merlet used her education to lead grassroots advocacy to promote the rights of Haitian women and worked with others to change the culturally accepted norm of gender-based violence.
Merlet was involved in an array of organizations seeking to create and enforce gender equality. In Merlet’s early advocacy years, she founded EnfoFanm, an organization that sought to raise global awareness about the challenges Haitian women face, namely the history and continued use of sexual assault by government soldiers, police, and criminal gangs as means of controlling and oppressing women. EnfoFanm also led a campaign to name streets in Port-au-Prince after famous Haitian women to celebrate and commemorate their work as well as elevate the status of women within Haitian culture. Later in 2006, Merlet took part in creating the Coordination Nationale pour le Plaidoyer des Femmes [National Coordination for Women’s Advocacy] and served as a spokesperson for the organization to fight against sexism within the public sector.
One of Merlet’s greatest accomplishments was leading the efforts to reclassify rape. Prior to 2005, rape was considered a “crime of passion” or an “offense against morals” in Haiti. Rape victims and their families seldom received monetary compensation from the perpetrators, and had no hope for a legal sentencing or justice for the victim. In large part thanks to the work of Merlet and many other women activists, rape has been reclassified as a criminal offense. However, there remains a lack of a precise definition of rape as well as strong judicial system to uphold and enforce the criminalization of rape. As a result, many rapes continue to be overlooked by authorities and there is a stark lack of rape prosecutions, leaving victims vulnerable and susceptible to further gender-based violence.
From 2006 to 2008 Merlet acted as the Chief of Staff to Haiti’s Ministry for Gender and the Rights of Women. There, she continued to promote equal rights and end gender discrimination and violence. Though in a government position, Merlet continued to participate in grassroots advocacy and worked closely with the Minister for the Coordination of Women and Women’s Rights, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue. Together, Merlet and Lassegue opened the first Haiti Sorority Safe House and V-Day Safe House, both of which act as safe houses for women who are victims of domestic violence. At both of these safe houses women can access medical, legal, and psychological aid as well as gain life skills through the business and computer training courses offered. There continues to be an overwhelming lack of safe houses and aid offered to victims of domestic and gender-based violence. Merlet and Lassegue’s work is carried on by organizations like Fanm Deside, but more needs to be done.
The earthquake served as a reminder of how crucial the work in which Merlet was involved continues to be. A report by Amnesty International stated, “the displacements and living conditions in the displaced persons camps have increased the risk of facing gender-based violence for women and girls, while the destruction of police stations and court houses during the 2010 earthquake further weakened that state’s ability to provided adequate protection.” Women and girls living in the camps with poor lighting at night, unsecure tents, and limited police presence continue to be increasingly susceptible to rape and gender-based violence. Furthermore, the child sex ring run by United Nations Peacekeepers exacerbated the sexual abuse women and girls faced in the camps in Port-au-Prince.
The work Merlet started for the promotion, empowerment, and protection of Haitian women’s rights at the grassroots level remains imperative. The UN’s debacle illustrates why women and local leaders must be involved in the disaster relief process and the need to bring female issues to the forefront of government policy in the hopes of strengthening the justice system to deter rape and gender-based violence as well as provided justice for female victims.
Up Next: Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Sister Pauline Quinn coming April 20th