Living with Vulnerability: Preparing Migrants for Crisis

Migrants, mostly from Niger and Pakistan, load their baggage onto the IOM ship, Red Star I, in Libya during the April 2011 evacuation. Photo: Nicole Tung/IOM (2011)
  Date: Thursday, June 29, 2017
By Mohammed Abdiker, UN Migration Agency Director of Operations and Emergencies

As resilient as I know migrant communities to be, they can still easily be among the worst affected by natural disasters, extreme violence or armed conflict. They have certain heightened vulnerabilities specifically because they are migrants. Whether in cities or in rural settings, migrants frequently fall through the cracks of national and international crisis warning systems and emergency response. They are more often than not less prepared than their neighbours and are more exposed to hazards. These factors add together to make migrants less able to cope with and recover from the impact of disasters — leaving them extremely at risk of being “left behind” in terms of stabilization, recovery and development.

In 2011, I was one year into my post as the UN Migration Agency’s Director of Operations and Emergencies and the Organization was faced with responding to the largest sudden movement of migrants the world had ever seen. The Libyan crisis had forced about 800,000 migrants to flee across international borders in only a matter of months. As there were approximately 1.8 million migrant workers in Libya before the crisis, their forced movement had significant implications for the overall region and beyond, by bringing to the political forefront a number of questions on the protection and rights of migrants caught in crisis, the role of State actors, the international community and international cooperation mechanisms in such situations, and the implications of such crises for migrants’ countries of origin, as well as for wider migration management systems . The Central African Crisis, also showed the large vulnerability of migrants, where we moved hundreds of thousands of migrants by air charters and road movements to neighbouring countries, migrants, who, the international humanitarian system, does not place squarely on how to respond to their needs. Today, almost every other day, IOM, evacuates migrants from Yemen, by sea or air, to safety either to Djibouti or directly to their countries of origin.

Although the scale of the Libyan crisis and its effects on migrant populations were significant, and the CAR, Yemen crisis, continue to challenge our collective response, other crises around the world, like Hurricane Sandy in the United States, the Tohoku triple disaster in Japan or the current crisis in Yemen, have made it clear that no country is immune to the effects of conflict or natural disaster, and that migrants are usually more vulnerable than local populations. Migrants may not speak the local language, lack local networks to rely on, may be unaware of local hazards and risks, find themselves with an irregular migrant status, and as such they are isolated with little access to assistance.

As more and more people move, migrants need to be accounted for in crisis-related efforts. In some cities, like Amsterdam, Brussels and Dubai, migrants make up more than half of the population. It is almost unthinkable that more than half of a city’s population would be left behind, even if unintentionally, in times of crisis.

Something that it seems many forget is simply that migrants are people. Migrants are men, women, children, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons — people, like you and me. International human rights belong to all persons, including migrants, and States bear the primary responsibility to protect and assist crisis-affected persons residing in their territory, as well as citizens abroad.

It can definitely be the case that State actors and other responders are not always enabled to identify migrants’ unique needs or might not have the capacities to provide migrants with sufficient protection and assistance. In such cases, international organizations can play an important role bridging existing gaps.

The Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Initiative and its Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster were born in response to these needs. In 2014, the Governments of the Philippines and the United States launched the MICIC Initiative to address the impact of crises — conflicts and natural disasters — on migrants. Due to our long history of assisting migrants in the context of crises, IOM was asked to serve as the Secretariat of the MICIC Initiative.

The Guidelines represent an important step towards advancing global governance of crisis migration and addressing gaps for at-risk populations, while providing practical guidance to stakeholders concerned with protecting and assisting migrants in crisis. The MICIC Guidelines also supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s goal of reducing inequality (Goal 10), including through (Target 10.7) facilitating safe, orderly and regular migration through well-managed migration policies, since they aim to help all countries and actors to save lives and improve protection for migrants. The MICIC Initiative and its Guidelines are referred to in the New York Declaration and can offer actionable recommendations in the process leading to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018.

As the UN Migration Agency, IOM works tirelessly to improve global governance of migration, as well as towards migration management, where migrants’ protection and well being is at the core. This is also at the heart of the MICIC Initiative, as the Guidelines are a tool to promote safe and orderly migration, guiding States and other stakeholders on how to protect and assist migrants, and not least foster migrants’ resilience before (most importantly), during and after a crisis.

IOM has been making use of its global presence to draw attention on the specific needs of migrants caught in crisis, provide technical assistance to States and build capacities of concerned stakeholders to systematically address the vulnerability of migrants in emergencies. We have developed several capacity building tools and activities available to governments and other actors, both in migrants’ countries of origin and of destination, to be adapted to different contexts and priorities.

I am proud to say that IOM has come to be relied upon as the lead agency supporting States in fulfilling their obligations towards crisis-affected migrant populations. The Organization has been supporting States and crisis-affected migrant populations with a number of measures, especially evacuations. For example, at the request of governments, IOM provided evacuation assistance for migrants during both Gulf Wars, the Kosovo humanitarian airlift in 1999, the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006, and the Libya crisis in 2011. During the Libya crisis, IOM organized more than 700 flights, rescued 8432 people during 15 sea missions, and directly extracted another 35,000 migrants from Misrata and Sebha under dire security conditions.

These evacuations have resulted in a total of more than 600,000 migrants being moved directly out of danger by IOM and transported safely back to their countries of origin.

We have also been supporting migrants during emergencies, en route and after arrival in a variety of contexts, although more needs to be done, especially to assist the return and reintegration of migrants fleeing a crisis. As well as direct assistance, IOM plays a crucial in providing technical assistance and capacity building to strengthen State’s capacity to prepare for and respond to migration crisis situations.

We can never end migrant vulnerability to conflict and disasters completely but at least we are taking vital steps towards helping them and States better prepare, respond and recover when crisis strikes.


Mohammed Abdiker is the UN Migration Agency’s Director of Operations and Emergencies.