Helping Migrants Prepare and Respond to Emergencies in South Korea

Simulation of an earthquake in a Disaster Preparedness Training for migrants organized by the Government of the Republic of Korea and IOM. Photo: UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017
  Date: Wednesday, December 20, 2017
By Seonyoung Lee, Project Coordinator, IOM Republic of Korea

This past July, unexpected torrential downpours flooded many towns in South Korea. The heavy rain damaged some cities previously thought to be safe from floods, such as Incheon and Cheongju. These events reminded us that we should all be prepared for potential natural and man-made disasters. In the light of this, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in partnership with the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, organized a series of disaster preparedness training sessions for migrants.

In the Republic of Korea, migrants are some of the most neglected and marginalized groups during emergency situations. Due to language barriers, restrictions on mobility, limited social networks, and limited familiarity with the local emergency response practices and procedures, migrants are more likely to be left behind during crises. This prevents them from accessing facilities, services, and information needed to ensure their safety. As a result, they end up being among the most exposed to the immediate and long-term consequences of disasters.

To address this situation and better prepare migrants to face possible emergencies, IOM and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety organized a series of disaster preparedness training sessions for migrants in seven different cities. As the number of migrants into Korea exceeded 2 million and forecasting the number will continue to increase, the Government of Korea has tried to include migrants in their social welfare service system and reinforce current assistance programs for migrants. The initiative to provide disaster preparedness training for migrants is one of the efforts of the Government to not leave anyone behind in response to disasters. A total of nine sessions in all seven cities were held between 13 and 21 June 2017 for more than 230 migrants on protection and emergency responses. Additionally, during October 2017, three more trainings for around 50 migrants were conducted in the districts not previously covered by the sessions in June.

Migrants are learning the standard safety procedures

IOM staff conducted the theoretical part of the training and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety closely coordinated with the Ministry of Justice and the Local Fire and Disaster Headquarters. For the simulation part of the training, the local firefighters provided more practical skills such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The training was designed as a pilot course that could be integrated into the Korea Immigration and Integration Programme (KIIP) managed by the Ministry of Justice. This program assists newly arrived migrants in learning the language, culture and social norms through a phased approach. As a responsible governmental agency for the KIIP, the Ministry of Justice coordinated and arranged with local partners to host the training sessions in their communities. In addition, the Multicultural Family Support Center in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, a local partner supported by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, provided advice on the training materials developed for migrants. IOM and the Government of Korea developed this training together. This collaboration is meaningful because the Government aimed at equipping migrants with the emergency preparedness knowledge and skills that Korean nationals learn in various ways.      

Fire Extinguisher Demonstration: "After aiming at base of fire, squeeze lever"

Since the training was conducted in Korean, only migrants who had completed basic Korean language courses provided by the KIIP were able to participate. The interactive teaching methodologies encouraged their active engagement despite a sometime limited language proficiency. To enhance the effectiveness of the training, Disaster Preparedness Guidebooks were developed in the languages most commonly spoken by migrants in the Republic of Korea such as Korean, Chinese, English, Thai and Vietnamese. The guide book was devised to include essential information on disaster responses in a concise way. To allow for an easier understanding of the materials, appropriate responses to different emergency situations were illustrated with visuals.


Disaster Preparedness Guidebooks were developed in the languages mostly spoken by migrants

Trainings were divided into two parts. As a start, migrants were introduced by IOM officials to the basics of emergency response management, including dealing with natural disasters, information on the health risks associated with poor sanitation, how to find evacuation centres near their home, and how to plan ahead for a possible emergency. The second part was practical and gave participants an opportunity to partake in disaster response simulation exercises in local safety training centers. The local firefighters and IOM staff members guided participants’ responses to different emergency situations by demonstrating appropriate actions, including CPR, and the use of fire extinguishers and other safety tools. Migrants also practiced emergency drills for the most common scenarios that may affect their area or region, including earthquakes, heavy snow, marine disasters, typhoons and fires, namely the most common disasters in the Republic of Korea. For instance, during the earthquake drill, participants experienced an earthquake at various magnitudes and rehearsed appropriate responses. The simulators also generated gusty winds, creating meteorological disaster situations, such as storms and typhoons.

Thanks to simulation exercises, participants gained practical knowledge and skills, and familiarized themselves with local practices and expected behaviour during such situations. Particularly, the migrants attentively listened on the required actions and actively participated in the simulations for the earthquake and marine disaster because of the recent small and big earthquakes in the Republic of Korea and the tragic Sewol Ferry Accident in 2014.

Migrants participate in an evacuation exercise during a marine accident simulation

“I did not know how to use a fire extinguisher in my house. By learning how to call 119, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how to evacuate from the fire, now I feel more confident in protecting myself and my family,” said Ms. Momo*, a married migrant woman and one of the participants in the training. Now she knows, for example, that when calling 119 for an emergency she should not hang-up until the 119 officer confirms that he/she understands the situation clearly.

Ms. Huong*, a Vietnamese mother of four, mentioned, “When thinking of my children, I am always concerned about their safety, especially during emergencies here in Korea. Due to the language barrier, I felt that I don’t have enough information about possible disasters and I was not sure how to properly respond to them. The training was a good opportunity to learn practical skills that I could apply for my family and myself.”

Other participants also expressed their gratitude and enjoyment of the training sessions. Those who had previously experienced a disaster in South Korea appreciated how the training sessions clarified what are the local responses during emergencies that everyone, including migrants, is expected to follow and respect. Furthermore, the participants found it very useful to learn how to find an evacuation center near home in the SafeKorea webpage since most of them didn’t even know that evacuation centers existed in the country. Commenting on the value of this initiative, Dongjoo Kim, Project Assistant at IOM Republic of Korea, said “Trainees were very passionate and participated actively due to the fact that there aren’t any other training programs that specifically target migrants. This training itself shows the Government’s effort to protect migrants. This initiative should continue and expand to better prepare migrants in the event of a disaster”.

Training Participants in Seoul

The Republic of Korea has experienced small and big seasonal disasters and has faced new challenges. In this context, providing proper information for all residents, including migrants, is key. This is where the Korean governments’ active participation is most needed. The launch of this pilot Disaster Preparedness Training for migrants should be considered as one of the governments’ efforts to apply an inclusive approach to disaster response.

Building upon these trainings, the Government of Korea can go one step further by providing Training of Trainers to migrants trained so far, to equip them to facilitate basic disaster preparedness trainings in their own languages for the newly arrived migrants. By doing so, the Government can reduce the number of migrants who lack vital disaster preparedness information. Moreover, trained migrants could work as focal points within their communities during emergencies. Finally, by training local disaster preparedness/response government officials together with these trained migrants to understand and apply an inclusive approach in their work in local communities, local governments will enhance their capacity to protect vulnerable populations in their regions. Migrants will benefit from this comprehensive approach and be able to properly prepare and respond to possible disasters.


* Names changed to protect identity


Seonyoung Lee is Project Coordinator at IOM's Office in South Korea. She has organized and facilitated several emergency preparedness trainings for migrants. For more information on these activities you can contact her or IOM Seoul by using the contact information below.

Miah Park, Head of Office, Tel: +82 70 4820 2781, Email:

Seonyoung Lee, Project Coordinator,  Tel: +82 70 4820 2751, Email: