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Harvard, Yale, and University Network for Human Rights Legal Experts Call on Biden Administration to Aid Climate Refugees

Human rights experts published a white paper calling on the Biden administration to aid refugees escaping the effects of climate change in Central America.
Human rights experts published a white paper calling on the Biden administration to aid refugees escaping the effects of climate change in Central America. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Emmy M. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

Human rights experts from Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, and the University Network for Human Rights published a white paper calling on the Biden administration to aid refugees escaping the effects of climate change in Central America on Thursday.

The white paper focuses on the Northern Triangle — a region consisting of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — and the “large-scale migration” of civilians fleeing the impacts of a deteriorating environment.

Thomas B. Becker, an attorney at the University Network for Human Rights and a co-author of the report, said many legal experts decided to work together on the white paper because of the “interesting intersection” between immigration, asylum, and human rights law.

“This is more than environmentalism, this is more than just human rights, this is more than migration — all these things are intertwined,” Becker said. “When you compartmentalize them, you can’t have a holistic approach to addressing the problem, and this is why we had folks from across different disciplines involved in this.”

Deborah E. Anker, the co-founder of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, said the report was written because the increase of climate change refugees was an “urgent problem” and “urgent challenge” that the United States helped create.

“The Northern Triangle has been in trouble for over a decade, for decades really, but it’s been intensified,” Anker said. “The U.S. historically has had a significant role in destabilizing countries and governments in that region, and we have a huge impact on climate change as well.”

James L. Cavallaro ’84, co-founder and executive director of the University Network for Human Rights and co-author of the paper, said the publication aims to “change the conversation” about migration and displacement “at the macro level,” especially when it comes to international culpability and responsibility.

“We’re in a situation where the United States has a historical, global responsibility for CO2 emissions and climate change,” Cavallaro said. “Along with responsibility for the causation of climate change comes a responsibility to remedy the consequences.”

A central motivation of the paper was to utilize “outside-of-the-box thinking” to present a “more permanent solution” to combat climate change, said Jeffrey S. Chase, a former immigration judge and co-author of the paper.

“To try and approach something new and change the government’s thinking about where this fits into asylum and climate change was just incredible,” Chase said. “It was a lot of work, but it just felt like such an incredible effort to be part of.”

Gina M. Starfield, a second-year at the Law School and researcher on the report, said the paper-drafting process began before the presidential elections. Starfield said that regardless of the results, the team believed their findings would be an important opportunity to “analyze the law” and “on the ground” situation in the Northern Triangle.

“We didn’t know what administration was going to come about and how receptive they would be but regardless, climate change issues are only increasing and the number of refugees, migrants and people fleeing these situations that could qualify for protection and could qualify for expanded versions of other forms of immigration relief is only growing,” Starfield said.

Camila Bustos, a third-year student at Yale Law School and member of the University Network for Human Rights, said that though the Biden Administration has taken steps to remedy climate change, lawmakers must continue to “creatively, critically, and humanely” develop solutions.

“It’s been really positive to see that they’ve taken some steps, but as with so many issues, we think there’s so much more that’s needed,” Bustos said.

Yong Ho Song, Archie Southgate Fellow Attorney and co-author of the paper, described the publication as “very timely,” especially given the urgency to develop solutions to help people suffering from climate change to “live with dignity.”

“We have a new administration that is very open to listening to what civil society has to say about how we think about helping these people who flee their countries due to climate change,” Song said.

John Willshire Carrera, the co-managing director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and co-author of the paper, said that the publication is a step towards “rebuilding the system” following the Trump administration’s asylum policies.

“So this was a very special moment to get up and start moving forward,” Carrera said.

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at

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