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Honduras president seeks assistance, warns of increased migration in wake of devastating hurricanes

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández answers questions Aug. 13, 2019, as he leaves a meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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Weeks after Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Central America in quick succession, nearly 100,000 Hondurans are living in shelters, many of which have become coronavirus hotspots. The country’s economy has been paralyzed.

It is an unprecedented crisis, Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday. Hernández warned that in the absence of a coordinated international response, migration from Honduras to the United States could surge.

“Imagine someone who lost everything, his house, his source of income, who feels hopeless and believes that there’s nothing left for him,” Hernández said. “And then he has a relative (in the United States) who says: ‘Come here.’ ” 

Battered by back-to-back hurricanes, Honduras braces for a long recovery

On Friday, Honduras filed a request with the Trump administration for temporary protected status (TPS) for Honduran citizens who are already in the United States. Guatemala, which was also affected by the two hurricanes, filed its own request last month. The Trump administration has tried to end existing TPS programs, which protect migrants from deportation while their countries manage crises.

But Hernández said he was hopeful that the United States would recognize the severity of the current crisis, which has left at least 99 dead and “collapsed” the crucial agricultural industry of the Sula Valley, deepening the country’s dependence on remittances.

“If they are returned to Honduras, it would have a double negative effect. The United States would lose a labor force and a very important tax contribution, but also in Honduras we would see the impact of their not being able to send remittances,” Hernández said.

Hernández and several other senior Honduran officials visited Washington this week to lobby for a humanitarian assistance package from multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and from the U.S. government. He stressed the link between the hurricanes and climate change, suggesting that wealthier countries that emit more greenhouse gases have a debt to pay in the recovery effort.

“We are one of the countries that produce the least emissions,” he said. “But we are the hardest hit by these phenomena.”

Both Honduras and Guatemala have said they will seek assistance from the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, but Hernandez complained that those funds were “bureaucratic and difficult to access,” and that Honduras needed faster ways to respond to climate change-related disasters.

Scenes of flooding, devastation lie in wake of monstrous Hurricane Iota

Both Eta and Iota tore through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and parts of Mexico, leading to massive floods and landslides across the region. One landslide in the village of Quejá, Guatemala, left around 100 dead. In Honduras, a large number of bridges and roads were heavily damaged or destroyed, complicating rescue efforts.

“Entire villages were destroyed by mudslides,” Hernández said.

Survivors were taken to makeshift shelters, where keeping social distance and maintaining public health standards has been impossible. The Honduran government has already noticed an uptick in coronavirus cases linked to the aftermath of the hurricanes, he said.

When Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras in 1998, it prompted a large migration to the United States. The United States responded to that crisis by offering TPS to Hondurans and Nicaraguans.

“That seems unlikely with the Trump administration, which has been skeptical of TPS generally, but also with the incoming Biden administration, given the other pressures they will face on immigration,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “But the scale of devastation in Central America is real, so they can certainly ask, since this is the kind of situation that TPS was designed for.”

Earlier this year, Hernández’s government signed an agreement with the Trump administration that would allow the U.S. to send non-Honduran migrants to Honduras to seek refuge, instead of allowing them to process their claims in the United States. That agreement has not been implemented because of the pandemic. Even before last month’s hurricanes, human rights advocates said the agreement would put the lives of asylum seekers at risk.

That deal is likely to be withdrawn under the Biden administration. As a candidate, Biden proposed a $4 billion aid package for Central America to address the root causes of migration. In Friday’s interview, Hernández said he thinks Honduras could work with the Biden administration to “create something strong, fast and highly effective.” 

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.