Call for Action: The Need to Include Short-term Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction Efforts

photo credits: unsplash/bantersnaps
  Date: Monday, April 1, 2019
By Christian Thorup-Binger, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand attracts many migrants, particularly international students, who move there for short periods of time to study. New Zealand is also prone to a variety of hazards, including earthquakes and floods. Migrants are often disproportionately impacted during disasters due to various vulnerabilities, such as limited access to resources and language barriers. However, in many cases they also possess capacities that can help them cope with a disaster, including strong social networks and prior disaster experience. Short-term migrants, such as international students, face particular challenges yet possess certain strengths that should be acknowledged and leveraged in disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts. Including the needs of migrants is increasingly being recognised as an important step towards effective DRR; the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Compact for Migration all stress the need for migrant-inclusive DRR at the global level.

Existing disaster literature describes some vulnerabilities and capacities of migrants in general, but only briefly mentions short-term migrants. Therefore, there is a need to better understand how the increasing global movement and presence of short-term migrants, including international students, residing in host countries influence and affect local DRR policies and strategies. Interestingly, international students are not often considered to be short-term migrants according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and United Nations definitions, though in practice they typically are, which means that they might fall between the cracks when developing and implementing DRR practices for migrant communities.

I conducted a study in Auckland, New Zealand to explore the vulnerability and capacities of a specific sub-group of short-term migrants (i.e. international students) who might have been overlooked in host countries’ policies and strategies for DRR. I collected data by conducting interviews with 10 international students and four key informants from tertiary institutions and local governmental agencies.

Through thematic analysis of the collected data, I identified four key themes: (i) daily challenges; (ii) well-being; (iii) seeking information and support; and (iv) disaster (un)awareness. Capacities identified amongst the international students included their awareness of the importance of balancing academic life and free-time, being at ease in the host country, diverse language skills, and an active search for extracurricular activities outside the tertiary education institution.

Vulnerabilities experienced by the international students were associated with language barriers, weak social support, and lack of knowledge about local support services. When seeking information and support, international students predominantly used social and online media. National media outlets, such as newspapers and TV, were not regularly used to gain knowledge of what was happening locally. Information was often shared through international students’ social circles, and thus not always consistent with official communications. International students expressed diverse perceptions of disasters, ranging from tangible to hypothetical depending on their prior experience with disasters. Auckland and New Zealand were viewed as safe and organised places to live, which influenced international students’ trust in the ability of the local government and the tertiary education institution to provide them with adequate support in the event of a disaster. Students indicated an interest in being included in DRR efforts and suggested co-creating educational workshops about DRR.

What I take away from this research and my personal experience, having been an international student myself, is that while international students can face challenges in host countries because of language barriers, unfamiliarity with local resources and so on, they also possess many strengths that should be leveraged. A key recommendation for policy and practice resulting from this research is that local governments should formally acknowledge the diversity present among migrant sub-groups and actively engage all different groups in DRR policy and practice. More specifically, international students should be given opportunities to actively participate in the development and implementation of DRR efforts by the local government and tertiary education institutions. These efforts will benefit from the strengths of international students and their potential to act as trusted sources and channels of information (e.g. through bilingual resources, skilled social media use and complex social support networks) when creating and disseminating risk communication. Moreover, tertiary education institutions should increase the timely and consistent sharing of DRR information with international students, both before their arrival and throughout their stay.

The purpose of this research was to add to the limited knowledge available on the topic of short-term migrants and their inclusion in DRR efforts, with hopes that increased understanding about this group of migrants might further their inclusion in local DRR efforts, thus decreasing their vulnerability to disasters in host countries.

Further readings on this:

Christian's Masters thesis (publicly accessible on Auckland University of Technologys 'Tuwhera Open Access Theses & Dissertations' platform).

Vulnerability and capacities of international students in the face of disasters in Auckland, New Zealand: A qualitative descriptive study, a research study accepted for publication in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.



This article was written by Christian Thorup-Binger, an international student from Denmark. He completed a Masters in Emergency Management from Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand, in 2018. This article highlights key findings from his Masters research that focused on short-term migrants, vulnerabilities, capacities and disaster risk reduction. Christian’s Masters dissertation was supervised by Dr Nadia Charania who is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Emergency & Disaster Management at AUT. Nadia holds a PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability from the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada), and specialises in qualitative and participatory action research. Nadia is interested in reducing health inequities faced by migrants and refugees.