Hurricanes risk aggravating migration, hunger crises in Latin America and Caribbean, U.N. fears

Ramón Espinosa/AP

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, which displaced thousands of people across the Caribbean as they battered several islands, risked plunging an already struggling region into a deeper food crisis and could trigger further migration, the regional director for the United Nations World Food Program for Latin America and the Caribbean said Friday.

Lola Castro, who is visiting Washington this week visiting from Panama, said populations across the region were already struggling to make ends meet due to a lack of opportunities as well as the economic crises brought on by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine when the storms hit, leaving millions in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos and Cuba in the dark and in need of relief.

“We just saw the two biggest [hurricanes] of the season in two weeks; one in the Dominican Republic, very, very heavily affected, and Cuba,” she said, noting that there is still time to go in what could be a very busy storm season.

U.N. officials say their work across 34 countries and territories in the region has demonstrated there is a connection between hunger, climate change and the rise in migration. According to the U.S. government, encounters with migrants along the southern border with Mexico have for the first time exceeded 2 million in one year as an increasing number of undocumented individuals flee their home countries and try to enter the United States.

Many of them come from South and Central America, as well as Cuba and Haiti, the last two of which are seeing historic flows of migrants attempting to cross both by land and at sea.

While migrants feel compelled to leave for many reasons, Castro said many are pushed to do so because of factors involving climate change — whether it’s the destruction from storms and hurricanes, like the region is currently seeing, or drought.

“They are pushing people to the edge, that they cannot really sustain themselves in their communities,” she said. “The loss of harvest, having basically nothing to eat or having no social systems to support you in your communities, is really making people move. They move to cities, and then onward, they go through very difficult journeys, like what we are seeing in the Darién.”

The Darién Gap is the swamp and jungle region between Panama and Colombia, often referred to as one of the world’s most dangerous migrant crossings. Last year, the U.N. said 130,000 migrants traveled through the region. In just the first nine months of this year, that number is already at 116,000, Castro said.

In addition to the migrants moving through Central America, the U.S. is seeing record numbers of Cubans and Haitians trying to get to its border. A Category 3 Hurricane Ian battered western Cuba on Tuesday after making landfall in the westernmost provice of Pinar del Río and plunged the entire country into darkness, triggering protests on the island. Although Haiti was spared from Hurricane Fiona a week earlier, the Dominican Republic was not.

Both countries share the island of Hispaniola and the Dominican Republican is home to thousands of Haitians, some of whom have been attempting to reach the U.S. through Puerto Rico by traveling across the Mona Passage in unsafe boats.

“They are all coming to the U.S., the majority of them,” Castro said.

The World Food Program, Castro added, has tried to increase its efforts through food and cash assistance and other opportunities, but solutions are needed to address the root causes of migration.

“We provide some money to people to be able to buy basically their food basket, or part of the food basket, and then try to invest a little bit also in education, health, etc., to have a better livelihood,” she said. “It’s very difficult for us to solve the problem with one action, it requires many actions. This is why it’s very, very important that governments continue working there, the social protection transfers take place, and also that there is a system put in place for these people to have adequate education facilities, health facilities and employment.”

Castro said her program is working with Cuban authorities to assess damage from Ian and how to respond. The hurricane slammed the island-nation before making landfall in Southwest Florida on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 storm.

“We know that many of the crops, banana, yuca, cassava, sweet potato and tobacco, have been devastated in the west of the country,” she said. “That already affects the capacity of the people to have food on a daily basis and from their fields, but also the income that they have from trading because this is a rich area that trades a lot with these commodities as well as tobacco, which is one of the main cash crops in the country as well.”

In Cuba, she said the World Food Program has pre-positioned supplies for around 250,000 people for 60 days, which will be activated as soon as requested by the government.

Castro said that with so many crises this year around the world, Latin America and the Caribbean have been off center stage. At the start of the year the agency had hoped to reach 8.5 million people in countries and territories that were at risk of severe hunger, but with increased costs of food, shipping and a lack of funding, the program will reach a lot fewer.

“We are looking at around a $359 million shortfall for WFP Latin America and the Caribbean only,” she said, adding that the program recently received some supplementary support from the U.S. for Haiti, Peru and Ecuador. “The situation is much worse than everybody expected it to be at this moment.”