How Climate Change Affects Cross-Border Migration

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The climate crisis has created what is believed to be million climate refugees. In the Americas alone, communities have experienced extreme weather events like Hurricane Maria in 2017 in the Caribbean, Hurricane Eta in 2020 throughout Central America, and Hurricane Iota on the same area less than a month later.

Combine that with deficient human rights for poor and indigenous communities in some Latin American countries and persistent drought in Central America, and that means more people are heading to the US-Mexico border for job opportunities in the states. From 2021, the Pew Research Center found that encounters between migrants and border patrols were at an all-time high.

And when these migrants manage to make it to the border, whether in a trailer or with a small group led by a coyote, they encounter miles of desert. Some volunteer groups, such as human borders, attempt to leave water and other necessary supplies for migrants cross the desert in the southwestern United States. But that may not be enough to ensure the safety and health of all travelers during the crossing.

As well as calculating how the climate crisis is pushing people away from their homes, the researchers also found that it puts migrants who cross the desert at greater risk to avoid being caught by border patrols. An interdisciplinary team associated with various schools including the University of Idaho and the University of California published an article in Science last December, who discovered that the climate crisis will make crossing borders even more dangerous than it already is, as the barren terrain that migrants traverse will only get hotter and harder to navigate.

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“We see that migrant travel will become much more dangerous over the next 30 years,” said Reena Walker, graduate science student at the University of Idaho and co-lead author of the study via a University of Idaho press release. “By 2050, the already high costs of crossing the desert will likely increase by more than 30 percent.”

Ryan Long, an associate professor at the University of Idaho and lead author of the study, said in a press release that the effects of dehydration while crossing the Arizona desert resulted in thousands of deaths. The crossing is already deadly due to the long stretches of desert that migrants have to cross, making the increase in mortality in the future hard to imagine. The research group was able to trace the highest death rates to areas of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert where water loss is more likely to occur.

“Access to sufficient amounts of potable water to withstand the high rates of water loss experienced during the journey is likely the difference between life and death for many migrants,” Long said.

Jason DeLeon, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and co-author of the study, says the models assumed migrants walked in a straight line from the border and crossed the desert “from point A to point B”. De León, who leads the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a long-term study that examines border crossing with a combination of ethnographic, archaeological, visual and forensic approaches, also recognizes that in real life, migrants often bypass areas to avoid being detected, which will only add to the stress on their bodies.

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“[Researchers] found that even with the cheapest scan going from point A to point B in a straight line, it’s still cumbersome. The body is still going through a significant amount of trauma – you can’t carry enough water to survive,” says De León. “Yet people do it miraculously because they end up finding water in a cattle tank, they drink their own urine, they push their bodies to the limit… But a significant number of people die. ”

The irony is not lost on De León that the migrants who are displaced by climate problems in Latin America are the same people who struggle to survive exposure and severe dehydration while crossing America.

“The United States must take responsibility for migrant deaths that occur at the US-Mexico border because of our own policies,” he said. “We are one of the main contributors to global warming.”

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