A group of migrants from Honduras walking along a rail track on their way to the United States in Tabasco, Mexico. Photo by: Carlos Jasso / Reuters

A decrease in rainfall in parts of Honduras is linked to an increase in migration from those areas, according to an analysis of family units apprehended at the U.S. southern border between 2012 and 2019.

The data identifies the Honduran cities and departments of birth for approximately 320,000 family units apprehended in the United States. While the root causes of migration are often intertwined, the data shows that prolonged droughts are leading more people to leave their homes and travel north. It also shows that the higher the homicide rate in a particular department, the stronger the association between rainfall and out-migration.

“If we can understand more about where people are coming from and why they’re leaving, we can target assistance better so that people don’t feel forced to leave their homes in order to feel safe and food-secure,” said Sarah Bermeo, an associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke University who conducted the analysis. “Foreign aid can be part of the solution to the root-causes problem in these countries, but I don’t think foreign aid [in] the way that it has been deployed in the past has been particularly effective.”

Migrants and refugees have been arriving at the U.S. border in increasing numbers over the past several months, as COVID-19 movement restrictions ease and people flee violence, food insecurity, and a lack of economic opportunity. Those conditions have only been compounded by pandemic lockdowns and two hurricanes that hit Central America in the fall. President Joe Biden has pledged to spend $4 billion in Central America to address the root causes of migration.

Hunger in Honduras reached “unprecedented” levels, according to a February report by CARE, which also predicted that a third of the country’s population could face severe food insecurity by the end of 2021.

Bermeo and her team found that an increase in rainfall deficits from the 25th to the 75th percentile in a department is associated with an additional expected 221 family unit apprehensions at the U.S. southern border from that area the next year.

“If we can understand more about where people are coming from and why they’re leaving, we can target assistance better so that people don’t feel forced to leave their homes.”

— Sarah Bermeo, associate professor of public policy and political science, Duke University

When the homicide rate is 26 per 100,000 people, an increase in the rainfall deficit from the 50th to the 75th percentile is associated with an additional 34 apprehensions at the U.S. border. But when the homicide rate is 81 per 100,000, the same increase in rainfall deficit sees an additional 222 apprehensions.

When people need to leave their land because a changing climate is causing their crops to fail, they often migrate within their country rather than outside it, Bermeo said. But in a place such as Honduras, where urban areas are extremely violent, people may feel they have no choice but to leave the country entirely to find somewhere safe, she added.

The data, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, suggests that a person is less likely to migrate externally as their department becomes more resilient to precipitation shocks, less violent, or both.

Foreign assistance targeted at addressing violence, corruption, and other root causes of migration can take decades to actually reduce the flow of people, Bermeo said. But understanding the link between food insecurity and migration could be an opportunity to see short-term results.

“When you’re talking about subsistence farmers, when these crops repeatedly fail, then eventually they’re going to say: ‘OK, this is not going to get better. We’re seeing a pattern. We have to leave,’” Bermeo said. “If you can work with [international organizations] as well as with the local farmers on the ground to figure out the right strategies to change that, you can actually start instilling hope that next year will be better right now. And then by next year, it could actually be getting better,” she added.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

“You can shift crop production much more quickly, I think, than you can interrupt cycles of violence and organized crime,” Bermeo said. “Both types of issues have to be addressed. But I think you can take a more short-term track looking at food security and climate resilience for agricultural areas at same time as you’re simultaneously pursuing these longer-term strategies to interrupt the cycles of violence and corruption.”

Peter Läderach, head of climate-smart technologies and practices at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, said foreign assistance could be deployed more effectively to connect humanitarian action in food-insecure areas around the world with the development work that often follows.

“It’s really climate that puts pressure on the food system,” Läderach said. “If you're a humanitarian organization and you just come in to feed the hungry people, you leave again, and then somebody else comes in to try to build resilience — this all has to be a continuum.”

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.