This article was first published on 4 June 2021 on the Environmental Migration Portal.

Tijuana – Tens of thousands of migrants arrive each year in the Mexican city of Tijuana, bordering the United States, to try to change their lives. They migrate alone or in large groups, and for multiple reasons: fleeing poverty, violence, discrimination, and increasingly, to leave behind disasters caused by extreme weather events that have devastated their communities.  

Today some of these environmental migrants share their experiences with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). What they all have in common is that they lost everything due to the passage of Hurricanes "Eta" and "Iota" in November 2020. Their testimonies show how migration around the world is increasingly affected by the consequences of floods, hurricanes and storms.  

Fleeing nature’s wrath  

The Central American region has been characterized as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of environmental and climate change. In the Dry Corridor, an arid space that occupies large portions of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, subsistence agriculture is regularly affected by drought. Therefore, when sudden-onset disasters hit, such as those that occurred in November 2020, they are exceeding the resilience of households.  

Marvin, Jenny and Carlos do not know each other, but they are all three Central Americans. They are in Tijuana for the same reason: they lost everything at the end of last year as a result of Hurricanes "Eta" and "Iota."  

All three are stranded, expectantly, in one of the most transited cities on the US-Mexico border. They wish they could somehow pass to the other side and leave behind the moment in their lives when nature annihilated their properties and dreams.  

Marvin: "The Motagua River is destructive"  

Marvin is a farmer in his thirties. He migrated with Karen, his wife, and their two children from the department of Izabal (Guatemala). What he left behind is a nightmare.  

In November 2020, Hurricanes "Eta" and "Iota", category 4 and 5 respectively on the Saffir-Simpson scale, devastated the region and affected 7 million people in ten countries, including Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico.  

Guatemala was one of the countries most affected along with Honduras and Nicaragua, as informed by the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix’s (DTM) assessment of the Hurricanes’ impacts. What is more, “Eta" and "Iota" caused 1.7 million new displacements, especially in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)

Marvin and his family experienced it up close: "When we were told that 'the full one' (the flood of the river) was coming, we didn't believe it. It didn’t rain heavily, but we did not know that in the west of the country there were great storms. A river that comes from Honduras was completely filled, and ended up filling the Motagua River too," says the farmer.  

"I had a poor little animal, a horse, to pull the product, the corn, the cassava ... I had daily work with the help of the horse, to take the products out of the field, to the road, to grab the bus or the car, to take the product to the markets, and the flood also took it, the poor animal died, we lost it, fences were lost, everything was lost," he adds.  

Prior to this, Marvin worked in a banana company that later shut down: "The company collapsed and dismissed all its workers, we practically depend on them because without the earnings from there, we have no means of tilling the land, of buying the seeds, fertilizers, liquids, that are needed," says Marvin.

His wife, Karen Patricia, completes the story of how difficult it was and explains how migrating became their only survival method: "My children wanted to eat but we had nothing. It was very hard to experience that, so we took the decision to get out of there; we had no choice," says the migrant mother.  

Crossing Mexico was not easy. They spare the details, but made it clear that the road was full of hardships.  

"What I want is for my children not to go through what we are going through. It would be very hard for them to live this again," says Marvin, who holds it against the authorities of his country that they were never given an early warning of "Eta".  

Jenny: "With 'Mitch' (1998) they had to take us out in boats for a hill. Now, with 'Eta' and 'Iota' (2020), all was lost."  

Jenny is Honduran, from an area in the Department of Cortés called Bajos de Choloma. In 2020 she was working in a seamstress company, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic she was left unemployed, like many other people.  

In her case, the experience of 'Eta' and 'Iota' made her remember another traumatic moment in her life, the passage of Hurricane "Mitch" through her community 23 years ago.  

"When hurricane 'Mitch' happened (October-November 1998) we had to be taken out in boats for a hill and from there, thank God, my dad and my mom, we got back on our feet, but now with the Hurricanes 'Eta' and 'Iota' we practically lost everything...," she explains on the verge of tears.  

The area where she lives is surrounded by "bordos" (containment dams) that during heavy rains, as on this occasion, break and overflow causing flooding and destruction. She narrates how the family was saved, but lost their property.  

When she returned to the village, her worst fears came to life: "the houses were lost, the water took everything, everything, everything. It was sad for us to come back and find nothing after so many years of struggling to have something, " she says.  

Carlos: "It was a painful thing to see how you lost what little you had"  

"I am a farmer and I was dedicated to agriculture in my country, but with the passage of the hurricanes I lost everything and decided to migrate to the United States," says Carlos, a farmer from the community of El Belloto, in the Department of Lempira (Honduras), who migrated with his 5-year-old son.  

The mountainous area where he lived is not particularly hospitable to agriculture, but he used to plant coffee, corn and beans, staple crops in Central America.  

"We lived well, we didn't lack anything. After the Hurricanes, our house was destroyed, we lost the plot where we worked, it got bad," he says.  

It was several weeks of rain which resulted in "being left empty-handed" and with many people ending up on the streets, without jobs, with no way of earning a living. With no options to financially support his family, Carlos thought the best option was to leave.  

On February 1, together with his son, he set out for Tijuana arriving on March 19. The decision doesn't weigh on him: "It's awful to be left with nothing overnight. It’s like you can’t think of anything, there was nothing to do at that moment and it occurred to me to move here, to the United States, because that is the only way," he adds.  

Together with his son, Carlos Alfredo, he remembers what they left behind and insists that, whatever happens, they will return to their community. However, he reminds his young son that things will not be the same.  

"The lesson that I leave him with (having migrated) is that, even if you face adversity, you can always get up, no matter how much it takes. He's going to realize what we lost and that, through God, we're going to get it back someday, right? And, thank God, that he is living the adventure with me here," Carlos shares.  

IOM has been working on the links between migration, environment and climate change for decades. IOM is helping people and governments prepare for the adverse effects of climate change on migration. It also conducts programmes on climate change adaptation and mitigation, disaster risk reduction, and community stabilization to help people stay in their homes and prevent forced migration.  

When migration is the only choice, IOM works with governments to ensure safe, orderly and regular pathways for migration, and provides aid to those forced to flee their homes. IOM has published with the Secretariat of the Central American Integration System (SICA) a recent study on the relationship between migration, disasters and climate change in Central America. It also supports the development of appropriate policies to prevent forced migration and address the needs of climate migrants.  

Photos by  Alejandro Cartagena and Cesia Chavarría. 

Authors: Cesia Chavarría, Alejandro Cartagena and Alberto Cabezas work in the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Communication Unit in Mexico, and Pablo Escribano is the Regional Thematic Specialist on Migration, Environment and Climate Change in the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean of the IOM.

This article is based on two recent documents:

Línea base – Vulnerabilidad y sequía: Corredor Seco, Honduras, November 2020, IOM Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean.

DTM Perspectiva Regional – Impacto de los huracanes Eta e Iota en países de Latinoamérica y El Caribe, December 2020, IOM Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean.

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