Haitian Migration: Food Insecurity, Fragility, and a Better Way Forward

Haiti has been in the news. In July, a presidential assassination was followed by an earthquake and hurricane in August. Then, in September, thousands of Haitians made U.S. national headlines when they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although this may have come as a surprise to many U.S. citizens, the arrival of Haitians seeking refuge at the border is only a snapshot of a much larger picture that extends back much further in time.

Since the devastating 2010 earthquake, efforts by the international community to improve the situation in Haiti have not solved the problems that forced people to leave home. Haitians who were deported to Haiti (a country many deportees had not seen in over a decade) by the United States now face serious food insecurity and other dangers.

Destabilized livelihoods and diminishing household food security often drive families to seek out new opportunities and refuge; at the same time, migration can also impact reliable access to food, worsening food security. Unless policymakers establish a new policy framework to support long-term food security in Haiti, hunger will continue to drive Haitians to seek refuge elsewhere and make it unsafe for them to ever return.

After years of displacement and movement since 2010, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have been seeking refuge in multiple places across the hemisphere. For many Haitian migrants, coming to the United States was a last resort.

Fertile Grounds for Fleeing Haiti

Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti already struggled to support its domestic agriculture industry, in part due to international trade policies that overemphasized food aid and cheap food imports from the United States and elsewhere. Climate change also disproportionately affects tropical and low-income countries like Haiti, making it harder for Haitians to consistently produce and access food. On the 2021 Climate Risk Index, Haiti is third among the countries most affected by severe weather events. Deforestation and soil erosion exacerbate the situation, worsening the impacts of floods and hurricanes. In 2010, the Haitian government reported that only 48 percent of food consumed in the country was produced domestically, with 44 percent imported and 8 percent from international food assistance. Environmental degradation and reliance on cheap imports left the country’s food sector highly vulnerable to shocks.

When such a shock happened in 2010, it destroyed farms, infrastructure, livelihoods, and markets. The limited agricultural production in Haiti that underpinned the country’s fragile food security status also saw significant declines the following year. From 2009 to 2011, production of cereals fell by 9 percent, beans and pulses by 20 percent, and roots and tubers by 12 percent. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians left the country in the years that followed in search of food for their families and greater stability.

Temporary Home Sweet South America

Many Haitians first traveled across the Caribbean to South America, settling primarily in Brazil and Chile. However, when Brazil’s economy stagnated in 2016, many Haitians continued to Chile. At the time, Chile was one of the most politically and economically stable countries in the region and did not require Haitians to have a visa to enter. From 2015 to 2017, the number of Haitians arriving annually to Chile jumped from 12,000 to 103,000 and by mid-2020 it is estimated that over 230,000 Haitians were living in Chile.

An initially positive reception for Haitians has since deteriorated, and Haitians in Chile are increasingly subjected to anti-Black and anti-immigrant discrimination. In 2018, new restrictions blocked most Haitians arriving in Chile from acquiring visas. Facing increasing difficulty finding employment and housing, over three-quarters of Haitian migrants residing in southern Chile were experiencing food insecurity by December 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation, making it harder to find work and feed a family.

Running into a Wall

Under these conditions, tens of thousands of Haitian migrants decided to attempt the perilous 5,000-mile journey north towards the United States, much of which would have to be done on foot. Access to food and social assistance are scarce on this route, and migrants are limited to bringing only what they are able to carry. Along the way, migrants must wait in informal camps, like the ones in Necoclí, Colombia, and in Tapachula, Mexico. If a migrant successfully passes through Colombia, through the Darién Gap. This dangerous strip of jungle that links South and Central America is notorious for the treacherous terrain and criminal groups who extort and frequently assault migrants. Even so, officials in Panama reported a significant uptick in migrants, mostly Haitian, crossing the Darién in the first nine months of 2021. And this flow is ongoing—in late September, the Panamanian government warned U.S. officials that an additional 60,000 migrants are making their way through Central America toward the U.S. border.

Haitian migrants who survived the journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border in September were hoping the Biden administration would be more welcoming than the Trump administration. What they encountered instead was a heavily patrolled border, fortified by strict orders to not allow any undocumented migrants to enter the United States. As the world watched images of thousands of Haitians encamped under a bridge outside Del Rio, the mayor of Del Rio said those staying in the encampment had little access to clean water and food, and many migrants had to cross the border back to Mexico to find food.

A week later, the Biden administration chose to use a Trump-era public health provision known as Title 42 that allows authorities to expel migrants without providing them the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States. By invoking Title 42, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were authorized to clear out the Del Rio encampment in late September. Though official data has not been released on the locations of these migrants after CBP removed them from Del Rio, it is estimated that more than 7,000 people were deported to Haiti in September and several thousand were returned to Mexico.

Food Insecurity Continues to Be Acute in Haiti

After the arduous journey in search of safety and stability, deported Haitians were sent back to a country in which many of them had not lived since 2010. People in Haiti today are regularly subjected to gang violence and kidnapping, political instability, and natural disasters. Tens of thousands of people are still internally displaced from the 2010 earthquake, and successive droughts, trade disruptions, and inflation since then have worsened food insecurity.

As of August 2021, Haiti has one of the highest levels of chronic food insecurity in the world. More than half of its total population is chronically food insecure, and 22 percent of children are chronically malnourished. Another earthquake and tropical storm in August pushed almost a million additional Haitians into food insecurity—events that will only become more frequent and more destructive due to the effects of climate change. Even CBP authorities recognized that they know deporting people back to Haiti will likely worsen hunger for those migrants due to widespread hunger across the country, lack of jobs, and political instability.

As of August 2021, Haiti has one of the highest levels of chronic food insecurity in the world.

To make matters worse, the Haitian president was assassinated on July 7, 2021. Following this tragic event, gangs blocked Haiti’s ports, cutting off fuel shipments, disrupting livelihoods, and preventing many people from accessing food and other basic necessities. In the midst of this chaos and food insecurity, deportees arriving back in Haiti are likely to face severe challenges feeding themselves and their families.

The Better Way Is Paved with Multidimensional Nuance

The United States and other countries have sent over $13 billion in foreign aid to Haiti since 2010, much of which has proven ineffective at addressing the root causes of food security and migration and has sometimes made the situation worse. Continuing the current approach of providing reactionary and short-term assistance will not build long-term food security in Haiti and could even cause the number of Haitians arriving at U.S. borders to keep growing in the coming years. In other words, deporting migrants to Haiti without appropriate supplemental action is counterproductive at best. The international community can and should help reduce hunger, instability, and irregular migration by implementing policies that promote long-term food security in Haiti and address the forces that cause people to migrate in the first place.

At the core of such a strategy should be a nuanced and multidimensional understanding of the myriad factors contributing to fragility in Haiti. Despite historically reactive approaches to foreign assistance in Haiti and Central America, the Biden-Harris administration has indicated that change is on the horizon. In July, the administration released its U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America. This strategy takes a more interdisciplinary approach to considering migration than previous administrations. Even though this strategy does not include Haiti, it represents an important shift in policymakers’ thinking on the links between migration, national security, and development. It also signals a renewed focus on addressing the root causes of migration, many of which relate to state fragility. While the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Strategic Framework for Haiti acknowledges poverty and instability as drivers of irregular migration, it underemphasizes the role food security can play in building resilience. A policy framework similar to the root causes strategy should be developed for U.S. assistance in Haiti that includes food security as an important pillar for the nation’s long-term stability and prosperity.

The Global Fragility Act (GFA) is an existing policy that reorients the United States toward a paradigm more focused on conflict and violence prevention. Passed in 2019, its implementation has been delayed, in part due to the significant challenge of selecting priority countries and regions. As deliberations continue, the United States should harness the framework of the GFA to address the ongoing crisis in Haiti using a more multidimensional and prevention-focused lens. Critical to these efforts will be strengthening local markets and the supply chains that make nutritious foods available and affordable.

The United States should be a global leader on addressing climate change at home and abroad in order to reduce the impacts of natural disasters and increasingly irregular weather patterns on Haiti and its neighbors. This will require not just a focus on mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, but significant focus on building resilience and facilitating adaptation to the negative effects of climate change that are baked in for at least the next 30 years.

Addressing food insecurity should be a top priority of any U.S. strategy toward Haiti. Agricultural and economic development goals in Haiti can be better integrated with national security and immigration policies; the White House itself has produced a report inextricably linking climate change and migration. Haiti is not a focus country for USAID’s latest Global Food Security Strategy, but lessons learned from this more holistic approach to agricultural development should be expanded to Haiti. USAID has also increasingly tried to foster sound natural resource management in Haiti’s agricultural sector and focuses on supporting small and medium-sized agricultural businesses, although the agency is currently implementing agriculture programming in only one region of the country. Such efforts should be evaluated and scaled. Supporting climate adaptation for Haitian farmers should be a high priority for USAID to help promote more stable and resilient food systems in the country which could reduce future out-migration.

Addressing food insecurity should be a top priority of any U.S. strategy toward Haiti.

Food insecurity in Haiti is not a problem that can be solved overnight. Nor can (or should) the United States address it alone or in the timespan of one presidential administration. Even so, it is important that the United States takes action now to support long-term food security. Doing so will make Haiti safer for returned migrants unable to find stability abroad and ultimately reduce the number of Haitians who are forced to leave home in the first place.

Jamie Lutz is a research associate with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at CSIS.

Commentaryis produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Jamie Lutz
Research Associate, Global Food Security Program
Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program