How to Help Migrants Integrate Using Disaster Recovery and Preparedness

Bettrice (right) with Red Cross volunteers in Montserrat.
  Date: Friday, October 13, 2017
By Charlotte Monteil, PhD student, University of East Anglia, UK

Para leer este artículo en español clique aquí.

With a different set of resources than the natives, migrants face specific challenges during and after disaster. It is therefore essential to take them into consideration in the disaster risk reduction process and in post-disaster recovery. We give here the voice to an immigrant in a place strongly affected by a serie of volcanic eruptions. Although it is a personal story reflecting on the individual experience and perception of one person, it also relates to several issues faced by immigrants all over the world in post-disaster context.

Some 15 years of destructive volcanic eruptions totally and definitively devastated the South of Montserrat in the Leeward Islands, British West Indies, including Plymouth the capital city. This vicious enduring cycle led to major unforeseen demographic change on the Island.

In the first three years that followed 1995, when the volcanic crisis started, about 75 per cent of the population was forced to leave the country, leaving only 2,400 people on the country against about 10,500 before 1995. This left massive labour gaps in all sectors of the society. Rapidly after this major exodus, the population began to slowly rejuvenate as migrants arrived from neighbouring Islands, attracted by the jobs let vacant by the displaced Montserratians and by the critical need of construction workers. Since 2002, about half of the people living in Montserrat are immigrants and without them the country could not function.

The Soufrière Hills volcano located outside Plymouth, Montserrat.

Bettrice, a Jamaican woman in her 30s, is one of them.

She had been a tuberculosis specialist for almost ten years in her country of origin, when, in 2010, she heard by word-of-mouth that the hospital in Montserrat needed a substitute medical technician. And at this point in her life, Bettrice was looking for a change.

New to Montserrat, Bettrice found that she could only secure short-term contracts. She soon felt that she would not be able to progress in her career, despite her hefty qualifications and 6 years’ experience. For several years, she would stay in Montserrat for the duration of her contract and then travel back to Jamaica in between contracts — in other words her work situation dictated when she could see her family and other loved ones back home.

In 2014, her third trip back to Montserrat, Bettrice applied to be a Disaster Risk Reduction officer with the Montserrat Red Cross. She had been volunteering with them since she first came to the Island and believed in their mission.

Bettrice’s work with the Red Cross contributes to the Island’s vital recovery process following fifteen years of constant hazards. The Red Cross has played a major role in Montserrat’s ongoing regeneration, not only because of its focus on disaster management but also due to the support it gives to migrants, helping them integrate. It acts at district level for various community regeneration projects, including for instance improvement of access and waste management, cleaning of abandoned houses, etc. It also conducts several risk awareness programs and assesses the level of vulnerability to various natural hazards within each district in order to implement specific projects there and advocate for governmental work.

Bettrice in the middle, preparing for a Red Cross training, with a Guyanese and a Montserratian volunteers.

And migrants actually make up a large majority of those volunteering with the organization — sometimes estimated at 80 or 90 per cent. With a strong emphasis on non-discrimination and inclusiveness, volunteering with the local Red Cross provides an opportunity for newcomers to get involved in their community, meet people and become part of Montserrat.

Bettrice explained that despite her continuous efforts to join in and to discover the country’s rich culture, her nationality always seemed to keep her out. She even joined a choir hoping to discover more about Montserratian culture. In fact, some people in the community started to believe that she was a Montserratian herself — someone, who had emigrated during the volcanic crisis and returned home once it was over and for a long time, she found it easier to let them believe that. When it became well-known that she was Jamaican, she lost a large part of her social network and started to become closer to the Jamaican community. She felt she could speak more freely with them and be better understood.

Regular discrimination against migrant communities in Montserrat upsets Bettrice. She said migrants need mental strength to cope with the regular attacks and stigma that they face. She explained the difficulty of maintaining a good relationship with someone, who was born and bred on the Island, meant that sticking to her own group seemed easier. However, through the Red Cross, she saw the need to be inclusive and not close yourself off to other groups. In her work, Bettrice tries to bring people together. She regularly organizes meetings in different neighbourhoods throughout Montserrat, where she makes sure to invite all communities.

Some of the destruction caused by the volcano near Plymouth.

Some of the destruction caused by the volcano near Plymouth.

One of her main roles is to proactively help reduce people’s vulnerability to natural hazards like volcanic eruptions. Bettrice has to understand the specific socio-economic situations of the different communities in order to properly advocate for their particular needs to be included in national recovery but also disaster preparedness strategy. Indeed as most move to Montserrat to find better economic opportunities, immigrants are often forced to accept the most unstable and low-paid jobs, such as cleaning and construction, and are forced to live in precarious housing conditions, often very close to the area, which was devastated time and time again by the volcano.

Suffering from a high level of stigmatization, migrants remain spatially, socially and economically marginalized. They are not represented at the decision-making level despite making up more than 50 per cent of the total population, and not all nationalities are allowed to vote. With the Red Cross, Bettrice identifies their needs and works to empower the most vulnerable and alleviate poverty. She helps migrants stabilize their situation and really engage in Montserrat life with the aim of making long term contributions to the country.

Bettrice helps their voices be heard.

She has claimed that more of this work should be done, arguing that migrants are not represented enough in emergency planning. She has advocated for Jamaicans to have a strong community leader, able to represent them and help forge their place in society. Her involvement with the Red Cross goes well beyond efforts to reduce disaster risk. It embraces the concept that a divided society is a vulnerable one, contributing essentially to social cohesion and highlighting the need for better representation of some of the most marginalized people in Montserrat — migrants.

Seven years after she first arrived, Bettrice now feels accepted on the Island and is proud to be openly known as a Jamaican. While she may still face some critics, she is not afraid to raise her voice and be a spokesperson for migrants and more generally vulnerable groups on the island.


This story was written by Charlotte Monteil, a geographer and fourth year PhD student at the University of East Anglia (UK). She currently works on the processes of recovery following a disaster. She spent 10 months in Montserrat to analyse the experience of the country after 15 years of regular volcanic eruptions. Charlotte is particularly interested in social vulnerability, the link between disaster and migration and the involvement of citizens in decision-making, disaster risk reduction measures and knowledge production. She contributed to the book “Migrants in Disaster Risk Reduction. Practices for Inclusion” published in 2017 by the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative and IOM.

This story was also published by IOM on in the lead up to the International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October.