Why migrants need to be factored into responses to unexpected crises

No country is immune from unexpected crises, such as sudden breakouts of violence, war, or natural disasters. Even if some can be predicted, experience shows that the intensity, scale, and geographic spread of crises cannot be forecast with any kind of certainty. 

One particularly vulnerable group during critical events is migrants.

One particularly vulnerable group during such events is migrants — who, in many cases, account for a substantial portion of the affected population. During the Libyan crisis in 2011, more than 800,000 migrants fled Libya. While most were from neighbouring countries, over 120 nationalities were represented in the outflows. The triple disaster in Japan during the same year touched approximately 700,000 foreigners from a diverse set of countries — including Brazil, China, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.

And, if you scan recent history, there have been many other situations in which migrants have been among those most seriously affected by crises. The 2004 tsunami in Asia. The 2006 war in Lebanon. And more recently, the crisis in Yemen. To name only a few.

Migrants are often in a vulnerable position but also have important capacities and skills

Unexpected crises can affect migrants differently to citizens. Migrants have unique needs and vulnerabilities that at minimum need to be understood and taken into account in preparedness, response, and recovery actions. For example:

  • The inability to speak or understand the local language can inhibit migrants’ grasp of exposure to risks, information on how to access assistance during the emergency, or mechanisms through which to recover property and losses in the aftermath of crises. 
  • Lost, destroyed, or confiscated travel and identity documents can constrain migrants’ choices about whether, how, and where to flee to escape harm. 
  • Work permits or visas that restrict movements to certain geographic areas can lead migrants to make adverse coping decisions, such as to stay in place, even with risks to their safety. 
  • Isolated working conditions and limited social networks can hamper access to information and choices, and leave migrants beholden to the goodwill and mercy of employers.
  • Discrimination in laws and policies, or in their implementation, and lack of accounting for migrants in crisis response and management plans, can limit access to humanitarian and recovery assistance.  

At the same time, migrants have enormous capacities and skills that can alleviate some of the very vulnerabilities and needs that they experience in the context of crises. Migrants’ language proficiencies, cultural awareness, relationships of trust, and access to irregular and isolated populations can and should be leveraged to improve the protection of migrants affected by crises. 

The MICIC Initiative launched guidelines to expand protection of migrants in crisis-hit countries

To address these issues, the Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Initiative launched a set of Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster in June 2016 at the UN in New York and Geneva. Together, the Initiative and its Guidelines are a state-led, multi-stakeholder effort to ensure that migrants — who are often invisible in the face of unexpected crises — are factored into relevant action. 

Watch Sanjula Weerasinghe's presentation on the MICIC Initiative Guidelines at the Responding to crises conference.

The Guidelines aim to save lives, decrease vulnerability, increase protection, and improve overall responses towards migrants. Made up of 10 principles, 15 guidelines, and myriad illustrative practices, they offer guidance to states, international organizations, private sector actors, and civil society. As a whole, they cover the types of practical and common-sense approaches required to better incorporate migrants’ needs and capacities into actions on crisis preparedness, response, and recovery.  

  • The principles are intended to guide and inform all actions, by all stakeholders, during all phases. The first principle begins with the following edict: first, save lives. Those that follow are equally unequivocal. They canvass a broad range of themes, including human rights, responsibilities of states and other stakeholders, humanitarian principles, migrant empowerment and agency, migrant contributions to societies, cooperation and partnerships, multi-level action, and learning. 
  • The guidelines, which are organized by theme and crisis phase, are targeted suggestions that identify in broad terms the actions needed to better protect migrants. 
  • The practices illustrate ways to implement the guidelines. They can be adapted to suit specific contexts and priorities and are complemented by an online repository of existing practices. 

What we hope to achieve with the Guidelines 

When the needs and capacities of migrants are effectively incorporated into crisis preparedness, emergency response, and recovery frameworks, it promotes their resilience to unexpected crises and has the potential to foster social cohesion. When pitfalls and lessons from past crises are evaluated and understood, as a collective, we can ensure that vulnerable populations such as migrants are not left behind. When states and other stakeholders work together, sharing resources, knowledge, and expertise, migrants, their families, and societies are all beneficiaries.

Ultimately, the Guidelines need to be used to ensure that migrants, just like citizens, are afforded the best possible protection when they are affected by situations outside their control. In this sense, they are an example of recent efforts to improve the global governance of migration, particularly in the context of crises, although they can have much broader application.  For example, they can be an important component in implementing the Declaration and Target 10.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which countries agreed to cooperate internationally to facilitate safe, regular and orderly migration. This involves full respect for the human rights and humane treatment of migrants, through planned and well-managed migration policies.  

About MICIC 

Co-chaired by the United States and the Philippines, with a committed working group of states, international organizations, and civil society, the MICIC Initiative was launched in 2014 at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Sweden. These actors recognized that with over 244 million international migrants, most countries in the world host a migrant population that may be affected when situations of conflict or natural disasters erupt in their territories. Most recently, the MICIC Initiative was hailed as an important example of mini-multilateralism and referenced in the New York Declaration at the historic UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

The MICIC Initiative Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster can be downloaded in all UN official languages. For more information, please contact the MICIC Initiative Secretariat (, which is housed in the newest member of the UN family, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Both authors of this blog work at the MICIC Initiative Secretariat. Sanjula Weerasinghe, an Australian qualified lawyer, is a consultant and Michele Klein Solomon is Director of the Secretariat. 


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.