Disaster Preparedness in Urban Immigrant Communities
Southern California is at high risk for a major natural disaster. Yet, few assessments have been made to discover how communities with large populations of Limited English Proficient (LEP) immigrants would fare in such an event. It has also not been established whether LEP immigrants who may be poor and have low levels of education have the information necessary to prepare for and survive a disaster, or whether the social networks, formats, and language in which they can successfully receive and respond to emergency information are in place. To address these issues, examine past efforts, and build policy recommendations for the future, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI) and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC) undertook a joint project that examined several LEP immigrant communities in Southern California. After conducting interviews with emergency service personnel, both in local governments and in nonprofit organizations, and holding focus groups with LEP community members in their native languages, the report presents a number of findings and policy recommendations.
To protect migrants when conflicts or natural disasters erupt, States, private sector actors, international organizations, and civil society need information about migrant populations. Aggregated data on the municipal, national, regional, and international scale of migration and the demographics of migrants, such as gender, age, and nationality, enable stakeholders to understand the nature and scope of needs in the case of a crisis. Local-level migrant community profiles help stakeholders target responses. Some stakeholders collect detailed information on the location of migrants, how to contact individual migrants, emergency and family contacts, and specific vulnerability and needs. Recruitment and placement agencies collect information on the location and situation of labor migrants they deploy to other States and can be a useful source of information.
Migrants play a key role in sharing and updating their information to enable stakeholders to contact and assist them in the event of a conflict or natural disaster. That said, migrants in an irregular immigration status in particular may have reservations about putting themselves at risk by becoming more ‘visible’ and sharing contact and other information with stakeholders, especially State authorities. Such migrants are also more likely to be highly mobile and move from one temporary residence to another. Efforts to collect and share aggregated information on migrants in an irregular situation should address these barriers. Engaging civil society can help mitigate such challenges.
In cases where States, private sector actors, international organizations, and civil society collect personal data, they should respect privacy rights and confidentiality with a view to ensuring the safety and security of the migrants (and where relevant, other stakeholders) on whom they collect and share information. In collecting and handling information containing migrants’ personal details, stakeholders need to act in accordance with applicable law and standards on individual data protection and privacy. Stakeholders should also ensure informed consent. Stakeholders can adopt clear guidelines that define the type of personal data to be collected and the ways in which such data will be handled, including circumstances in which data can be shared.
- Registration systems for citizens abroad that enable States of origin (or family, community, or civil society, where practical and appropriate) to contact migrants in the event of a crisis and provide them with information on the crisis and available assistance.
- Measures to encourage citizens to register, such as user-friendly, online registration systems that highlight the benefits and services that become available through registration.
- Host State registration systems to collect information on migrants upon arrival.
- Aggregated data and research on migration trends and demographics, including the purpose and routes of migration and nature and characteristics of migrants.
- Information on migrant community profiles, migrant networks, and focal points.
- Databases of migrant workers that include information on accompanying family members.
States and other stakeholders have laws, policies, and programs on prevention, preparedness, and emergency response to reduce the impact of crises. Taking into account the presence of migrants, their vulnerabilities, and their potential needs in prevention, preparedness, and emergency response frameworks, including on disaster risk reduction (DRR), can promote resilience in the event of a conflict or natural disaster. Clear laws and policies on migrants’ eligibility for different types of assistance in the event of a crisis promote certainty. If the presence of migrants is not known or is inadequately incorporated in planning, stakeholders may overlook migrants in their responses. If stakeholders fail to appreciate factors that make migrants vulnerable, such as language barriers, isolated working conditions, irregular immigration status, or mistrust of authorities, responses may be ineffective. When laws and policies are unclear, responses towards migrants can be unpredictable and insufficient.
Migrants themselves and civil society may be in the best position to assist States and other stakeholders to appreciate the presence of migrants, their vulnerability, and needs. In this respect, involving migrants and civil society in the development of prevention, preparedness, and emergency response measures can be helpful. Such actions also build trust between migrant populations and State and non-State actors who provide protection.
Migrants and civil society also have capacities and resources that they can contribute to preparedness and emergency response. Their language abilities, first-hand knowledge of migrant populations, understanding of cultural norms within their communities, and ability to foster greater trust toward State authorities and other actors can be leveraged to create more comprehensive and effective systems and programs.
- Platforms to facilitate the engagement of migrants in the design and implementation of prevention, preparedness, and emergency response systems.
- Taking migrants into account in national and local frameworks on prevention, preparedness, and emergency response, including by recognizing migrants as a specific group with needs and capacities.
- Recruitment of migrants as staff or volunteers in prevention, preparedness, and emergency response mechanisms.
Migrants need to understand potential risks associated with a crisis, where and how to obtain assistance, and how to inform stakeholders of their needs. Stakeholders should find appropriate channels to communicate with migrants and to identify their needs and capacities. To do so effectively, States, private sector actors, international organizations, and civil society should address language, cultural, and other barriers. The effects of crises, such as power failures, loss of internet and satellite communication systems, and even the deliberate spread of misinformation (for instance, by people smugglers) may disrupt or constrain communication with migrants.
Communication efforts should also take into account the diversity among migrants present in host States. Diverse, multiple, formal, and informal methods of communication can help overcome barriers to effective communication with migrants. Women migrants are a large majority of domestic workers worldwide. Due to the isolated nature of this work, women in domestic work are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and confinement. In times of crisis, this vulnerability is exacerbated and they can be hard to reach via traditional communication channels. Fear of being detected, detained, or deported may inhibit migrants in an irregular immigration situation from accessing available communication channels. Migrant children can become unaccompanied or separated. They absorb information and communicate their needs in different ways than adults. Elderly migrants sometimes lack host-language capabilities. Migrants with disabilities may need braille, audio cues, and other disability-sensitive interventions. In the chaos that can ensue during crises, migrants in detention may be overlooked. Efforts to communicate with migrants should be sensitive to the predicaments of migrants in different circumstances.
Communication channels can take advantage of social media, places of worship, and migrants’ connections with their families and communities in their States of origin. Enlisting and involving migrants and faith-based and other civil society in establishing communication methods, and promoting their ability to communicate with each other, can facilitate communication with migrants, including hard-to-reach and hard-to-engage populations. Health or outreach workers who are already present in the community may be able to communicate in the languages migrants speak and understand different cultures in the community. Engaging and training them may be an effective method to deliver information to migrant communities.
- Multiple traditional and innovative communication channels to reach diverse migrant populations and minimize the effects of possible communication disruptions.
- Multiple mediums for communication in the languages migrants speak, at diverse literacy levels, to accommodate ways in which people absorb information, including accessible formats for persons with disabilities.
- Mobile applications and social media as a cost-effective, user-friendly, and widely accessible mechanism to provide crisis-related information.
- Helplines, hotlines, and call centers as an accessible and low-tech means through which one-way or two-way communication with migrants can be facilitated.
- Communication by civil society, especially migrant networks, diaspora, and faith-based actors with migrants in an irregular immigration status and others who may be hard to access.