The Power of Connection: Leveraging Migrants “Invisible” Resource During Crises

A local and foreign resident simulate together a CPR response during the Neighborhood Disaster Training Event at Sanjo Junior Highschool in Sendai City. Photo by the author, October 2016.
  Date: Wednesday, January 17, 2018
By Lisette R. Robles, PhD, Keio University, Japan

2011 was a point of personal and academic transition for me. Having relocated to Japan to pursue graduate studies, my arrival coincided with the devastating Great East Japan earthquake in March. The tragedy pushed me to refocus my field of study on the impacts of natural and man-made disasters on migrants. Over the following six years, one thing became clear to me:


to increase the resilience of migrants in times of disaster, we must tap into their social capital.


People continue to migrate internationally for various complex reasons, such as economic prosperity, but also for personal safety. Migrants can also find themselves in the middle of a disaster in their new home. This raises questions on how to best ensure the safety of migrants caught in crises.

Recent global policies have attempted to shift the perception of migrants from mere victims during crises to active actors in disaster risk reduction and recovery. Until 2015, the Hyogo Framework of Action had categorized migrants as a vulnerable population, with preparatory measures mainly focusing on protecting and mitigating disaster risks on migrants.

The migration community has since moved away from this disempowering position, with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 explicitly attributing a more dynamic role to migrants in increasing their own resilience in times of disaster. This move acknowledges them as essential stakeholders in disaster risk reduction. The importance of “empowering migrants to help themselves” is specifically outlined in Guideline 3 of the MICIC Guidelines for Protecting Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster. Among the capacities migrants can rely on is the network of social relations within and across their spheres of connections; in other words, their social capital.

The concept of “social capital” refers to the set of connections that people have with other individuals and communities. This resource is typically overlooked, which has limited the discussions on its importance to disaster risk reduction.

There are three types of Social Capital:

Bonding - refers to the established connection within one’s immediate personal sphere of relations.
Bridging - accounts for the interaction with other groups or collectives across the same level.
Linking - refers to connections established across the vertical gradient, where connections create opportunity to access resources.


Throughout my study of Filipino foreign students living in Japan during the Great East Japan earthquake, the importance of establishing strong bonds between students and their “bonding” networks were put on display.


Families and friends, mainly co-nationals, sought to share contacts in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Along with personal gatherings, the use of social media highlighted the empathy the students expressed for others in their immediate of friends and family. The ties between migrant collectives on the other hand displayed the “bridging” that transpires with other groups, such as colleagues and other foreign nationals.

The importance of “linking” is strongly present in the Guidelines 14 and 15 (Post-Crisis Actions). Linkages are often recognized as formal agencies of support, such as embassies, religious groups, non-governmental organizations and other social institutions.

The story of the Bayanihan Kesennuma Filipino Community, a collective of Filipinos in Kesennuma, Miyagi Japan, demonstrates the value of linkages in recovering from disasters through projects such as disaster themed radio shows, caregiver training and English teacher training. The access to post-crisis support creates opportunities to include migrants in the much larger sphere of disaster recovery.


Incorporating migrants in prevention, preparedness and emergency response systems strengthens their homogenous networks, allowing them to reach out to other groups and create linkages with formal institutions.


The City of Sendai’s Tourism, Convention and International Association has been hosting activities where migrants take part in disaster preparedness trainings along with the local and foreign residents in the area as part of their Multicultural Disaster Prevention Programme. Such activities give migrants the chance to increase civic participation and enrich their social network.

These examples from the experiences of migrants during the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake underline the importance of social connections and interactions during disasters. Inclusion demands finding opportunities to engage and having the motivation to be included. This requires collaboration among stakeholders, including migrants, and to recognize the capacity of migrants to increase their own resilience in times of disaster. Migrants have this salient but scarcely discussed resource at their disposal; their social capital, which must be explored to enable them to build their own resilience when disaster strikes.


Lisette R. Robles is a Filipino who recently earned her PhD in Media and Governance from Keio University in Japan. She arrived in Japan 20 days after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. This has significantly influenced her research and shifted her focus to migrants’ social capital in the context of disaster risk reduction and recovery. She currently lives in Japan. Contact: