Migration, a Consequence of Hurricanes.

By EntreMundos

The countries of Central America have been the setting for many environmental events, including tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and, most frequently, hurricanes. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua suffered the worst disaster of the 20th century with the arrival of Hurricane Mitch to Guatemala through Puerto Barrios, Izabal, on the 27th of October 1998. This hurricane was categorised by the Miami Hurricane Centre of the United States as one of the most devastating events of the century. Its passage had grave socioeconomic consequences which affected daily life and productivity, leaving homes seriously damaged and highlighting the vulnerability of the region to the consequences of natural disasters, disasters which have caused both national and international migratory movements,

Guatemala was also affected by the Tropical Storm Stan, which struck in October of 2005 and left death and destruction in its wake. According to CONRED, 670 people died, 844 more disappeared, and 38058 homes were damaged or lost entirely. In total, 495,927 people were impacted across the country, in addition to losses in the agricultural sector, all of which adds up to a cost of $338 million USD. Storm Stan had a greater impact and was even more devastating than Hurricane Mitch.

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch, Storm Stan, and the recent Category 4 hurricane Eta are, according to the National Hurricane Centre of the United States (NHC), the fiercest storms to hit Central America in recent years. The NHC warned that the “floods would be catastrophic”, along with rivers overflowing, and it added that “there would be a risk of death” to citizens. Although Eta rapidly weakened into a tropical storm at the start of November 2020, the heavy rains caused by the storm wreaked havoc upon the north of Guatemala: half of the homes in the village of Quejá, Alta Verapaz, disappeared. Records show that 150 homes were entirely buried, and at least 100 people died.

These natural disasters have hit impoverished rural zones the hardest, areas in which the infrastructure is precarious, employment is informal, and the economy is unstable and unsustainable, all of which contributes to the difficulties the rural population face in trying to improve their living conditions. Increasing poverty, unemployment, and human rights violations are the main causes of migratory expulsions over recent years.

Guatemala is located at a strategic geographical point that means that other Central Americans, as well as Latin Americans, use the territory of Guatemala as a focal point for migratory routes. Forced displacement continues to be a very sensitive issue at an international level, but one that must be addressed specifically in the context of natural disasters. According to a report by ECLAC, the income of the peasant population is the most affected, and it is therefore these people who may emigrate outside of the affected area (most likely to Mexico, the southern coast of Guatemala, or to the United States). The most seriously affected communities will emigrate to seek work in the face of an absence of subsistence opportunities, or at the very least they dream of recovering a small plot of land. In light of this situation, migration should not be seen as the “search for the American Dream”, but as an “escape from the Central American nightmare”.

International donations the government receives for the prevention and alleviation of natural disasters (just as the government through a legal initiative fiercely attempts to control donation to NGOs), must be overseen by the population and by entities who carry out social audits to find out where the funds are truly going. Irreparable damages such as human and material losses will prevent an increase in migration. In the end, it is not only about humanitarian aid, but also about the resolution of problems that are affecting the county (if not, one must only look at the most recent Honduran migrant caravan, which could have serious consequences for Guatemala at both a health and social care level). This situation is becoming unsustainable due to the violent responses in the place of an adequate response plan.

According to CONRED, Guatemala is the fourth most vulnerable country in the world to national disasters. It is thus necessary for the United Nations Organisation for Migration, the Ministry for International Relations (MINEX), the National Coordination for Disaster Reduction (CONRED) and the General Directorate of Migration (DGM) to continue implementing work plans to strengthen responses to migration as a result of natural disasters. Public entities should priorities programs and initiatives that work for the protection of migrants, such as temporary shelters for the use of displaced people, people providing legal and psychological support services, and above all welcoming spaces for children in strategic parts of the migrant country.

Cover photo: Wikimedia commons.