'We're defeated': Climate migrants fleeing storm-stricken Central America struggle to find refuge

CIUDAD JUÁREZ – A tragedy fell from the sky for Deivis Nahum Espina – severe flooding inundated his village in Honduras, destroying crops, houses and causing landslides.

“It was like the Bible,” said Espina, 31, as he pointed to the sky and described the devastation caused by Hurricanes Eta and Eta Iota last year. This disaster caused him to leave Honduras with his two children, his sister and his nephew. “We came on foot and sometimes on buses. It was like traveling for two months,” he said.

Espina is among the growing number of Central Americans who recently fled the region after devastating storms and a growing climate crisis – only to find themselves in a migratory crisis.

On March 15, Espina crossed the border through the Mexican city of Reynosa and surrendered to the authorities in the United States to seek asylum. Instead, he and his family were sent back to Mexico under a rule introduced during the Trump administration.

He was returned to Mexico without the ability to seek asylum at the U.S. border due to Title 42, a rule former President Donald Trump introduced on March 21 last year to prevent people from entering the country. crossing the border during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 62,000 people were denied entry usually from January.

Espina and his family were taken to the State Council for Population and Awareness for Migrants, known by the Spanish acronym COESPO, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in Ciudad Juarez. He repeatedly asked where he was as if he believed it was all a mistake.

“We have many people who have been returnees who are in a very difficult situation because they do not want to apply for international protection to find refuge in Mexico and they do not want to return to their countries, so wait and see if they can cross “said Enrique Valenzuela, a COESPO coordinator.

From his office, Valenzuela can see people crossing the Paso del Norte International Bridge. On many occasions, he hastily leaves his gatherings while watching the long lines of people slowly moving down the pedestrian crossing. After President Joe Biden took office, Chihuahua authorities saw an increase in the number of migrants turned away from various border entry points. Now around 80 to 100 people arrive every day.

“You are in some kind of immigration lock,” said Valenzuela. “It’s a bureaucratic labyrinth that creates a lot of fear.”

Escape from storm and hunger

Last year, amid the pandemic, Central Americans saw 30 hurricanes form, devastating entire regions and fueling the need to emigrate.

In Honduras, Eta and Iota barely left more than 250,000 people with access to services of any kind, including health, last year.

Approximately 8 million people today are food insecure due to the effects of climate change throughout the Dry Corridor – a 1,000 mile geographic zone that stretches through the Mexican state of Chiapas and extends across Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. according to a report by the organizations Action Against Hunger, Oxfam, COOPI, Trócaire and We World-GVC.

“Some migrants from the region are beginning to identify the effects of hurricanes as the reasons for migration. There is a good chance that migration, initially internal and possibly international, will also increase,” said Pablo Escribano, a specialist at the International Organization Migration. said.

An unprecedented climate crisis

In November, Francisco Ardeñal, director of the National Center for Atmospheric, Oceanographic and Seismic Studies, discovered that Honduras was experiencing an unprecedented climate crisis.

“It was extraordinary because we have never had two cyclones so close together since meteorological records began in 1951,” he said. “There is a combination of the current environmental degradation and the vulnerability of people who have built near rivers and in risk areas.”

As a result of Eta, Honduras saw two months of rainfall in just one week. This effectively resulted in rivers overflowing and flooding, which later worsened with iota.

“One thing that links these phenomena to global warming is that they quickly went from tropical depression to category 4 hurricanes in less than 36 hours. This has not been seen before and is related to the rise in sea surface temperature and higher levels of latent heat linked to climate change and the creation of more cyclones in the area, “Ardeñal said.

Marco Antonio Suazo, advisor to Project HOPE, an international global health organization, said “the impact has been enormous”.

“There are still houses destroyed, areas full of mud from the floods,” he said. “Many people have also lost their jobs because of the pandemic.”

“Now we see almost entire families in which fathers, mothers and children mobilize to make a dream come true, but do not know the risks, their state of health or the language.”

Estefany Suazo, who lives in the Honduran town of El Calán, told Noticias Telemundo last month she was considering “going with my two girls because the truth here is that there is nothing I can do”.

An increase in “climate migrants”

Around 34 people emigrate every hour from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to a report released in February from the Franciscan Network for Migrants.

Countries are plagued by violence, poverty and political instability, but “the new faces” of this exodus are “climate migrants” from Honduras leaving after “homelessness, unemployment and no crops,” said Rubén Figueroa, a member of the Mesoamerican migrant movement Non-governmental organization that oversees the displacement of people in southern Mexico.

Figueroa predicts that the exodus will only increase and reach pre-pandemic levels. “This worries us because migrants are very vulnerable to human trafficking networks and exposed to many threats.”

Such is the case of Dagoberto Pineda. He lost his job on a banana plantation after Eta destroyed his village in Honduras. With no work or the ability to rebuild his ruined home, he watched others go to the US with smugglers – sometimes called “coyotes” – and decided it was his time to go too.

A group of migrants outside the State Population Council in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, on March 18, 2021.
Albinson Linares

“I have nothing left so I decided to take a risk. But I haven’t achieved anything,” he said on March 17th. Pineda spent five days at a U.S. immigration service before being sent to Ciudad Juarez. “They told us they would help us, but they didn’t give us anything,” he said of the US facility, speaking from COESPO headquarters. “They took our things, clothes and everything away because they said it was rubbish.”

A few meters away, Alba Juárez Méndez burst into tears. She said she liked her life in the village of Sóchel in the Guatemalan province of San Marcos. She had no luxury, but she felt safe, had a roof over her head and could feed her children the potatoes, corn and beans she had grown.

Then the heavy rain came and she said her house had started to leak. Between tears and laughter, she said, it sometimes felt like it was raining more inside her house than outside. They lost running water after the hurricane.

“We were out of work and then the harvest was over. We couldn’t stay,” she said.

She was hoping to be reunited with her uncle, who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because the 300 quetzals (US $ 39) she earned to clean houses and wash clothes monthly wasn’t enough to run Yareli Tending to her 2 year old daughter, amid the havoc from the storms. So she left Guatemala a few months ago, went for walks and hitchhiked until she reached Ciudad Juarez.

“I didn’t know anything. I got to the bridge and Mexican immigration wouldn’t let me pass. They said the border was closed because of the pandemic and they didn’t even give me protection,” she said.

Juárez Méndez says she left the Mexican facility on the night of March 17 when she was told there was no room for her in any of the 18 accommodations in Ciudad Juarez. She walked the dusty streets of the border town for an hour with no money until a woman was moved and offered to give her housing in exchange for work.

“And so we are in Mexico, we cannot go back, we are defeated there,” she said. “I hope the president lets us pass, we don’t want to steal anything, but have a future, build a house, have electricity, water and studies for my daughter.”

Her voice breaks as she recalls what happened on January 22nd, when 19 people, including 13 Guatemalan migrants, who fled the violence and economic hardship that aggravated the pandemic in Central America, were shot and burned in Tamaulipas one of the bloodiest massacres of migrants in the past few years.

“I’m afraid that could happen to me, but if someone has a need, you go no matter what, because there is no other option,” she said.

Raúl Torres, a correspondent for Noticias Telemundo, contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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