Co-learning disaster resilience: A person-centred approach to engaging with narratives and practices of safety

  Date: Tuesday, June 12, 2018
By Shefali Juneja Lakhina, University of Wollongong, Australia

People who have been displaced by disasters, violence and crises, are most of all, seeking safety and protection. But, how do migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers learn about local hazards as they arrive in new places? And what do they do on an everyday basis to feel safe and secure as they settle in?

These questions were the starting point for my doctoral research project with local councils, institutions and communities in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia, last year. The Illawarra has been developed by waves of migrants since the 1950s. As a ‘Refugee Welcome Zone’, its regional councils, institutions and community-based organizations currently provide a range of services to a steadily-growing population of migrants, including refugees and humanitarian entrants. A coastal region surrounded by a mountain range, the Illawarra experiences seasonal exposure to many natural hazards, including bushfires, storms, flash flooding, lightning and sea-related hazards. This combination of demographic and landscape factors makes the Illawarra an interesting case study for understanding how migrants, refugees and humanitarian entrants can feel safe and secure from natural hazards and environmental risks as they settle into Australia.

My research in the Illawarra shows that engaging with people’s unique lived experiences and everyday practices of safety can make humanitarian policy, programmes and services more responsive, relevant and effective. If global commitments towards ensuring the inclusion, safety and protection of migrants and refugees are to be achieved, it will be necessary to innovate with person-centred approaches, which can reveal a person’s unique experiences, strengths, challenges and needs for safety as they move across places.

From July to October 2017, with support from six community interpreters, I conducted in-depth interviews with 26 households from diverse refugee backgrounds, spanning the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Myanmar, Syria, and Uganda.

The interview narratives were plotted using a person-centred mapping tool that I developed last year – the resilience narrative map. The maps show how people consistently strive to move from conditions of risk towards safety, while relying on past experiences, strengths and relationships, across places.

Resilience narrative mapping  © Shefali Juneja Lakhina

The maps reveal important insights that can have universal implications for how local councils, settlement services, and multicultural and community-based organizations engage with newly arrived refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia, and elsewhere.

The maps show that daily and ongoing support provided by community volunteers, former refugees, places of worship and community services can greatly contribute to a person’s sense of safety and well-being as they settle into new places. Access to dedicated settlement institutions and multicultural services, justly enforced laws and rules, and clearly stated emergency plans and procedures, can contribute to perceptions and practices of safety. Also, past experiences with natural hazards and crises can contribute to peoples’ attitudes, beliefs and everyday practices for keeping safe as they settle into new places.

The maps also highlight that the lack of timely access to hazard and risk information; fair access to safe, secure and healthy housing; and culturally appropriate support for in-home preparedness, present remaining challenges for how migrants, refugees and humanitarian entrants feel safe from local hazards in the Illawarra.

Speaking to migrants, refugees and humanitarian entrants in other places about their everyday practices of safety could reveal other needs and challenges.

The research findings have resulted in five recommendations for the Illawarra:

  1. City councils, local resettlement, and emergency services should coordinate efforts and provide new arrivals with systematic access to hazard and risk information;
  2. Ensure fair access to safe, secure and healthy housing;
  3. Prioritize in-home preparedness support especially for physically and socially isolated households;
  4. Integrate resilience planning across levels and sectors of work;
  5. Adopt a systematic approach to co-learning disaster resilience with migrants, refugees, and humanitarian entrants.

Extending this person-centred approach from the Illawarra, earlier this year, I put together the ‘Co-learning disaster resilience toolkit: a person-centred approach to engaging with refugee narratives and practices of safety’ (2018). Co-learning disaster resilience can be summarized as a systematic process for informing, engaging and partnering with people based on their unique experiences, strengths, challenges and needs.

The toolkit has been primarily written for caseworkers in humanitarian settlement and multicultural services and community outreach staff in local emergency services and city councils. It will also be useful to humanitarian volunteers and community mobilizers working with displaced people in a range of contexts worldwide.

Co-learning is not a final or complete solution, but is an assemblage of practices to build on, to spark further innovations in how policy, programmes and services can engage with people’s experiences and practices for feeling safe and secure.

Going forward, delivering responsive services to migrants, refugees and humanitarian entrants will require moving beyond a silo approach to hazards management and a generic approach to culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

It will be necessary to adopt multi-scalar and cross-sector approaches to design and implement more collaborative, accountable, responsive and empowering (CARE) programs and services with migrants, refugees and all people who are displaced.

I hope that future work can extend this person-centred approach by engaging with people who are temporarily or permanently displaced and living in varied conditions – in shelters, camps, or on the streets.


Shefali Juneja Lakhina has contributed to a range of policies and programs for strengthening disaster resilience across South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South-East Europe since 2005. She also conceptualized the HFA Monitor tool and co-authored the 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Her current doctoral research at the University of Wollongong, Australia, focuses attention on how refugee and humanitarian entrants find safety and security from a range of local hazards in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia.  Building on her research methodology and findings in the Illawarra, she recently authored the ‘Co-learning disaster resilience toolkit: a person-centred approach to engaging with refugee narratives and practices of safety’ (2018).