Migrants in Times of Crisis: An Emerging Protection Challenge

International Dialogue on Migration (IDM) 2012
Managing Migration in Crisis Situations
Venue: International Peace Institute, New York
Date: 9 October 2012
The recent political upheaval in North Africa, the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, major natural
disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake or the floods in Pakistan in the same year, and other
events of similar magnitude have captured global attention and entailed immense humanitarian
challenges. One important feature that these crises had in common was the large-scale movement
of populations within and across borders. In effect, international migration will always be a factor in
At the end of 2011, a total of more than 42 million people were in a situation of forced displacement
as a result of sudden or protracted crises.2 As such crises3 – natural or man-made – emerge they
typically generate disorderly and predominantly forced movements of people (either internally or
across borders), requiring a well-functioning humanitarian response.
This workshop and paper focus on the situation of international migrants when their destination
countries undergo crises. In other words, we will examine the challenges facing non-nationals,
mainly migrant workers and their families, in a State that is experiencing a crisis.4 As a group of
persons affected by crisis, migrants have often been less visible or neglected and may not be
accounted for in traditional humanitarian responses. Given the growing number of migrants around
1 This paper is based on two earlier background papers prepared by IOM as part of its International Dialogue on Migration
2012 “Managing migration in crisis situations”: see www.iom.int/idmcomplexcrises and www.iom.int/idmmigrantsincrisis. 2 UNHCR Global Trends Report 2011. Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million),
internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).
3 For the purpose of this paper, the term “crisis” encompasses slow- and sudden onset natural disasters as well as internal
and international armed conflict (e.g. war, civil war or unrest).
4 It is explicitly recognized that refugees and asylum seekers may also be among vulnerable mobile populations in a crisis
situation and require specific protection, in line with international law. A detailed discussion of the specific issues facing
refugees and asylum seekers, however, is beyond the scope of this paper.
Date: 18 September 2012 www.iom.int/idmnewyork
the world – 214 million international migrants according to latest estimates5 – the consequences of
crises for migrant populations will likely be a significant feature of future crises and need to be
factored into humanitarian response frameworks.
This background paper aims to enhance this understanding of the migration context in times of
crises and to facilitate constructive, open and informal discussions during the 2012 International
Dialogue on Migration6 workshop taking place on 9 October in New York. First, this paper explores
both migration management and humanitarian response frameworks, as well as migrant-specific
vulnerabilities, including the characteristics of stranded migrants. Second, the legal provisions
available and possible responses are explained, providing background for the first session of the day
– “Protecting Migrants in Crisis Situations”. The third and final section focuses on the subject of the
second session of the workshop, namely “Addressing Long Term Consequences”, thereby focusing
on the linkage between migration, humanitarian, development and security perspectives and
providing possible long-term responses.

1. Background
Migration management and humanitarian response frameworks
In times of crisis, affected populations by nature seek safety elsewhere. As a result, migrants
experience numerous barriers to accessing basic services, assistance, and protection. When
migrants’ host countries experience crises, migrant populations often have few means to ensure
their own safety. In some cases migrants may be unable or unwilling to leave the crisis area; in
others they may be unable to access humanitarian assistance, while in others they may seek refuge
across borders in adjacent countries. Such population movements have lasting implications for
societies, economies, development, the environment, security and governance, and exacerbate risks
for already vulnerable populations, including migrants themselves.
Last year’s events in North Africa7 demonstrated the vulnerability of migrants when their host
countries experience crises: many migrants were unable to escape the fighting and were trapped
inside Libya, where they were sometimes deliberately targeted by the warring factions. Others were
stranded at the borders between Libya and neighbouring countries in an attempt to seek safety.
Eventually, more than 800,000 migrant workers and their families crossed the borders into
neighbouring countries and returned or were evacuated to their countries of origin. The majority
were nationals of North-African, Sub-Saharan African and South-Asian countries, but altogether
migrants of more than 120 nationalities fled the crisis in Libya. Sub-Saharan Africans were one of the
largest groups of migrant workers in Libya: as a result of the crisis, more than 200,000 returned to
5 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008
Revision, http://esa.un.org/migration/index.asp?panel=1 6 The International Dialogue on Migration 2012 is IOM’s principal forum for migration policy dialogue. It aims to integrate
humanitarian and migration perspectives to improve preparedness for managing population movements in the context of
political crises, natural disasters and other emergencies. For more information on the workshop organized by the
International Peace Institute and IOM in New York on 9 October 2012, see: www.iom.int/idmnewyork. 7 For more on the crisis in North Africa and its repercussions for migrants and migration, see: IOM 2012 Returnees from
Libya: the bittersweet experience of coming home. Policy brief; and IOM 2012 Migrants caught in crisis: The IOM
experience in Libya. Available at http://publications.iom.int/bookstore.
Date: 18 September 2012 www.iom.int/idmnewyork
their home countries in just a few months time, giving rise to critical challenges in an already fragile
The international humanitarian system has produced well-developed mechanisms to coordinate
international responses to crisis situations. The humanitarian framework aims at providing a
comprehensive response to all affected by a crisis. Within these responses there are long established
mechanisms to respond to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), with refugees clearly
under the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
and an inter-agency collaborative approach toward IDPs. However, these defined groups of crisisaffected persons may not fully capture the varied conditions of all those on the move in crisis
situations. International migrants in particular have often been less visible or neglected and are
often not accounted for in traditional humanitarian responses.
In a world in which more and more people are on the move and countries host large migrant
populations, an inclusive humanitarian response framework is needed. Such frameworks need to
provide safety not only for displaced nationals but also for migrants living in host countries (for
example as refugees, labour migrants, seasonal workers, etc.). Humanitarian response frameworks
that do not proactively incorporate anticipation and management of migration into their
preparedness planning therefore risk alienating migrants from the aid they require in crisis. As such,
these systems should be strengthened and complemented with other measures to assist and protect
migrants in crisis situations.
Migrant-specific vulnerabilities and challenges to their protection in times of crisis
When a crisis strikes in a certain country, its population will likely face considerable hardship and
distress. However, crisis situations also further exacerbate the vulnerabilities that are specific to
migrants. When people are on the move they often experience numerous barriers to accessing basic
services, protection, and assistance. How migrants’ human rights are protected before a crisis will
directly affect their level of vulnerability and exposure to abuse during a crisis. For example,
migrants who have become victim of illicit practices by recruitment agencies may be unable to leave
or protect themselves if they owe debt to a recruiter.
The situation of stranded migrants in crises deserves particular attention. Stranded migrants8 are
typically exposed to severe vulnerabilities and need protection and assistance, including
international migration assistance.
Some examples of situations that may occur during a crisis affecting migrants – including stranded
migrants – and that may strongly exacerbate their specific vulnerabilities include the following.
Migrants may face practical impediments to accessing support. For example, language
barriers may complicate the ability to obtain relevant information about assistance
8 There is no globally accepted definition of the term “stranded migrant”. The term describes situations in which a migrant
is unable to stay in the country of destination/transit, unable to return to the home country, and unable to move to a third
country, and typically subject to severe vulnerability and distress. Crises and emergencies represent one scenario among
many others which can lead to stranding.
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Migrants whose freedom of movement is already restricted – e.g. domestic workers
whose passports had been taken away from them – may not be able to access consular
assistance and seek support to evacuate, because they lack social protection in their
host countries and/or their human rights were not adequately protected before the
Migrants may be unwilling to leave a potentially dangerous situation, typically for fear of
losing assets or being unable to return to the country or place of work after the crisis
Migrants with no legal documents may cross an international border to seek safety in a
country which is not their country of origin; and,
Irregular migrants may be excluded from humanitarian assistance if they are not
registered by the country of origin or by the country of destination. They may also not
turn for assistance to relevant authorities for fear of being discovered.
These situations may combine and overlap and the same migrant may experience several of the
above consequences during the course of a crisis. In addition, migrant-specific vulnerabilities may
combine with other vulnerabilities related to gender, age, health etc. Varying groups of migrants
(such as the elderly and children) experience crises differently, depending on their own capacity to
seek safety, and the capacity of their country of origin to assist them either while in the host country
or in transit.
2. Protecting Migrants in Crisis Situations (Session I)
Legal provisions for migrants in crises
There is no single legal framework that ensures comprehensive protection of migrants in times of
crises. However, different branches of international law do apply and contain a set of legal rules that
constrain, regulate, and channel State authority over migration, including in emergency situations.
These branches include Human Rights Law, International Labour Law, Criminal Law, Humanitarian
Law, Refugee Law, Nationality Law, and Law of the Sea. The rules – which have been created
through State-to-State relations, negotiations and practice – are enshrined in non-binding
instruments and multilateral and bilateral treaties, or have become part of customary international
law. Relevant in this context is also the in 2011 adopted International Labour Organization’s
Convention on Domestic Workers. Here, five specific provisions are worth mentioning.
First, States bear the primary responsibility to protect and assist crisis-affected persons residing on
their territory in a manner consistent with international humanitarian and human rights law. Where
needed, States should allow humanitarian access to crisis-affected persons such that humanitarian
assistance can be provided, including by other States whose nationals have been affected, and by
other relevant actors. The duty to ensure protection and assistance for migrants caught in crises
therefore rests with the State of destination, the State of transit to which a migrant may have fled,
and the State of origin which has responsibilities for its nationals even when abroad. However, in
crisis situations, States may experience insecurity and a breakdown of national institutions, or other
States may cut diplomatic relations which can inhibit them from providing the necessary and
adequate assistance and protection.
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Second, all migrants, irrespective of their status, are entitled to the full protection of their human
rights by the mere virtue of their humanity. Migrants’ rights are human rights. States have an
obligation to protect and provide rights to their citizens, but also to non-nationals (with a certain
margin of appreciation, for instance restricting them in terms of political activity such as the right to
vote and the right to stand for election). States are obligated to create a fostering environment to
promote and facilitate the enjoyment of human – and therefore migrants’ – rights.
Third, in cases of armed conflict, international humanitarian law also applies to migrants: the most
relevant provisions include the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants, the right of
migrants to leave the country in conflict, the prohibition of forced transfers, and departure
Fourth, established protection frameworks for specific categories of mobile individuals – such as
refugees / asylum seekers and trafficked persons10 – must also be observed in times of crisis.
International and regional legal frameworks have established a range of important categories (first
and foremost that of the refugee) to determine entitlements to protection and assistance. The
complexity of modern crises and forced and mixed migration situations, however, exposes displaced
individuals to a variety of crisis-related risks, vulnerabilities, human rights violations and levels of
socio-economic deprivation not necessarily captured by existing legal categories.11
Lastly, although a non-binding document and not explicitly identifying migrants or non-nationals,
‘the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’ can be understood to apply to them under their
broad definition of applying to “persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their
homes or places of habitual residence.”12 Although the Guiding Principles are non-binding, they can
provide useful guidance on how to deal specifically with Internally Displaced Persons – including in
times of crisis – since they are based on International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law and
Refugee Law.
Actions before and during a crisis
To ensure the protection of migrants in crisis situations, actions are required “before”, “during” and
“after” a crisis. Migrants and migration therefore need to be factored in pre-crisis preparedness,
emergency response, and post-crisis recovery, reconstruction and transition.
As noted in the background section, a better integration of migration management and
humanitarian approaches is necessary to adequately tackle the immediate and mid- to long-term
9 See 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Protocols, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention Articles 35-46 and
Protocol I Part IV.
10 At international level, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the 2000 United
Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in
Persons, Especially Women and Children.
11 For example, see Koser, K. (2012) Protecting migrants in complex crises. Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Policy Paper
12 For provisions at the regional level, see the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally
Displaced Persons (“Kampala Convention”).
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consequences of migrants caught in crises. Some of the main areas for policy responses and
cooperation before and during crises are outlined here.
Preparedness and contingency planning
Consideration of migrants, their needs and vulnerabilities must be more systematically included in
preparedness efforts at national, regional and international levels. This applies to both countries of
origin and destination, as well as to different types of crisis such as natural disasters or pandemic
emergencies. Preparedness at a regional level would benefit from the development of specific,
migrant-oriented early warning systems. A lack of information about the size, location and
composition of a migrant population in a country can, however, severely impede effective responses
in an emergency. Some countries with large numbers of nationals abroad have set up emergency
funds to assist migrants caught in crises in their countries of destination.14
Admission and border management systems in crises
Countries need to be prepared for the potential influx of persons fleeing crises from a nearby or
neighbouring country, including many who do not qualify for refugee protection. Mechanisms, such
as temporary admission and protection, may be required to prevent the stranding of a large number
of people at a border. Where they exist, regional agreements for the movement of people can
facilitate the returns of affected individuals to their home countries when appropriate.
Consular assistance
As the primary mechanisms through which countries of origin protect their nationals in other
countries, the capacities of consular services to respond in emergencies need to be strengthened.
One of their principal functions is the replacement of lost travel documents and provision of laissezpasser for migrants to be evacuated to their home countries.15 Consulates need to maintain up-todate records on their nationals residing in a country and disseminate information about the
assistance available to nationals when a crisis strikes. Further measures can be training consular
officials, establishing specialised rapid response teams, and enhancing capacity-building and
coordination among local authorities, international humanitarian actors and diplomatic missions.
Where countries do not have the capacity to maintain a network of consular services, collaborative
solutions between countries may be found. Also, consulates tend to be located in capitals or major
cities, but should anticipate that emergency consular services are often required in different parts of
the country or in border regions.
Protection and assistance in situ
During a crisis all migrants are entitled to non-discriminatory access to aid, such as shelter, food and
water, and health care. National civil protection or disaster response mechanisms should take into
account migrant populations and potential barriers they may face in accessing assistance (for
13 Other interventions can be: Reduction of risks associated with migration through pre-departure training and insurance
schemes; Health and psychosocial support to distressed migrants; Protection and assistance of vulnerable migrant groups
through referral mechanisms (e.g. victims of trafficking, unaccompanied minors). 14 IOM Council Resolution No. 1229 of 5 December 2011 establishing the Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism is one
example of the recognized need of States for more immediate and reliable responses to the migration realities flowing
from modern-day crisis situations. To date, the Governments of the Bahamas, Mauritius, Romania, South Africa, Turkey,
and the United States have generously contributed to the Fund (status: 2 July 2012).
15 See 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations for more detail.
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instance due to irregular status). At the international level, the cluster system of the Inter-Agency
Standing Committee has developed strategies to reach out to migrants and address their specific
Evacuation and international migration assistance
Humanitarian evacuation to home countries is sometimes the only reliable protection mechanism
available for migrants caught in crises, and a way to avert more severe humanitarian consequences.
A critical condition is that non-refoulement guarantees are respected and individuals are not
returned to situations where they may face persecution, torture or inhumane or degrading
treatment. When States do not have the capacity or resources to evacuate their own nationals,
international assistance may be needed. A contentious issue is the evacuation of non-national
relatives / dependants (such as spouses who hold a different nationality). Evacuations can be large
operations at a global scale which require high degrees of operational coordination between local
and international humanitarian agencies, border management authorities, consular officials, military
bodies, and private and commercial transport companies.
3. Addressing Long Term Consequences (Session II)
Population movements prompted by crisis events have lasting implications for societies, economies,
development, the environment, security and governance – dimensions that extend far beyond the
scope of humanitarian systems and response.16 Therefore, migration, humanitarian, development,
and security perspectives need to come together if the challenges surrounding the situation of
migrants in crisis situations are to be addressed effectively.
In addition to facing vulnerabilities in times of crisis, migrants are particular vulnerable in post-crisis
situations, the effect of which can be felt by themselves, their families, and their communities long
after the crisis has subsided. In particular, where a crisis obliges migrants to return to their countries
of origin, this can have severe impacts on the well-being of the individual, the livelihoods of entire
families, and the development and security of the country of origin. These migrant specific postconflict vulnerabilities therefore need to be considered in migration management planning and
preparedness by countries of origin with large populations of nationals living and working abroad:
for example, when a crisis forces a migrant to give up his or her work in the country of destination,
the loss of income and livelihood often affects entire families, who may have relied on remittances
as their source of income. Moreover, if returnee migrants are unable to reintegrate in their origin
countries, they may seek to re-migrate but may be forced to opt for irregular channels or the
services of people smugglers or even be at risk of human trafficking.
It is important to underscore that once the initial emergency phase has passed, or situations become
protracted, the migration consequences of the crisis may change. Return to the place of origin is
traditionally considered the preferred option, but is sometimes not possible.
16 Nothing in this paper intends in any way to supplant the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) system or
responsibilities, but rather looks at bringing to bear migration management approaches in addressing crises which affect
the movement of people.
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In 2011, the Sahel region experienced large-scale returns of migrant workers from Libya who had
been living and working in Libya and supporting their families back home through remittances.
According to government estimates, the total number of returnees to the Sahel, including
unregistered cases, is approximately 420,000; 200,000 of which are in the Niger, 150,000 in Chad,
30,000 in Mali and 40,000 in Mauritania.17 Governments from Chad, Niger and South Sudan have
recently stressed that large-scale returns can overwhelm a country’s capacity and resources to
receive and reintegrate their nationals who often face unemployment, loss of assets, debt and
emotional hardship.18
The case of the Sahel shows how a mass influx of migrant returnees can negatively affect a region
which is already impoverished and facing economic and social hardship, exacerbated by food
insecurity and regional instability. In the Sahel, most governments invested considerable efforts in
receiving returning migrants and providing immediate shelter, food, health care and onward
transportation to their home communities. Longer-term reintegration, however, remains a challenge
given the constant developmental and security issues facing the region. Furthermore, most
returnees had only low levels of education and originated from the more underdeveloped parts of
the countries. To add to this, IOM estimates that, on average, each returnee to the Sahel while in
Libya had supported over seven individuals in their home country, illustrating the magnitude of the
impact when remittance streams suddenly dry up. In addition, the traumatic circumstances of their
departure from Libya also meant that many returnees were struggling with psychological distress
and the feeling of having “failed” their families who had been relying on them. Other so-called
“returnees”, including many children, had in fact been born in Libya and never been to the country
of their parents, creating barriers to social integration and access to education.
Countries in other regions also faced the return of its nationals, like Bangladesh. Bangladeshi
nationals made up approximately 20 per cent20 of all migrants that fled Libya last year, and this case
provides an example of what measures can be taken in practice to provide safe return and
reintegration. The Government of Bangladesh and IOM, together with other partners, provided for
food, water and shelter, immediate medical assistance and registration, and arranged the transport
of the returnees to their communities of origin. To ensure the effective reintegration of the
Bangladeshi migrants, the Government, civil society, international organizations and the private
sector worked together to support them. IOM led the reintegration programme targeting more than
36,000 migrant workers, which included int.al. an outreach campaign, a comprehensive database of
all returnees, a one-time cash hand-out for each returnee supported by a World Bank loan, a call
center and Verification Center. The involvement of different stakeholders was critical: for example,
after the crisis a Chinese company operating in Libya remitted unpaid salaries for its Bangladeshi
workers directly to the Bangladesh Government’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.
17 As at mid-December 2011. Source: UN Secretary-General report to the Security Council of the assessment mission on the
impact of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel region, 7 to 23 December 2011 (reference S/2012/42), page 6. 18 Stressed by the Representatives of Chad, Niger and South Sudan during the International Dialogue on Migration in
Geneva, 23-24 September 2012. 19 For more detail see UN Secretary-General report to the Security Council of the assessment mission on the impact of the
Libyan crisis on the Sahel region, 7 to 23 December 2011 (reference S/2012/42) and IOM 2012 Returnees from Libya: the
bittersweet experience of coming home. Policy brief. 20 IOM Country Office in Bangladesh: http://www.iom.org.bd/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=62. “Out
of the 646.000 [that have fled Libya last year], approximately 299.000 are third country nationals (TCNs) – with Bangladeshi
and Chadians making up 20 percent each of the total number”.
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Further, in 2011 the Government of Bangladesh chaired the Fourth Ministerial Consultations of the
Labour-Sending Countries in Asia, also known as the Colombo Process, in which government
delegates devised recommendations for their collaboration if and when migrant workers are caught
in crises in the future.21
Responses after a crisis
As stated in the previous section, actions are required “before”, “during” and “after” a crisis to
ensure the protection of migrants in crisis situations. Here, two examples of possible responses after
a crisis are addressed, relating to post-crisis recovery, reconstruction and transition.
Reintegration and longer-term support to returnees and communities
Where migrants return or are evacuated to their home countries, these countries often struggle to
receive and reintegrate returnees socially and economically. Policy interventions may alleviate debt,
provide financial assistance and income generation projects, provide psychosocial assistance to
returnees, or support wider community development projects. Reintegration initiatives should try to
differentiate between the needs of men and women, and those with families and those without.
Examples of reintegration efforts are private sector initiatives to generate employment, communitylevel reintegration strategies, and counselling by civil society organizations.
Migration for reconstruction, recovery and development
Facilitated mobility and the benefits of migration can contribute to restoring the livelihoods of
migrants and their communities as well as promote the long-term recovery of a crisis-affected area.
Cooperation between countries and with employers and recruiters could aim to ensure the payment
of outstanding wages or the option to re-migrate, conditions permitting, to support the
reconstruction effort.
To respond effectively to the needs of migrants in times of crisis, it is important to link both
humanitarian response frameworks and migration management frameworks. Migrants face specific
vulnerabilities due to their unique status – relating to legal and practical barriers to accessing
protection and assistance – which are further exacerbated in crisis situations. Attention should be
given to stranded migrants, since they often need particular assistance and their plight remains an
invisible and underreported issue.
To protect migrants during crisis situations, different branches of international law apply that
contain a set of legal rules that constrain, regulate, and channel State authority over migration. In
particular international human rights law and international humanitarian law, among others, are
applicable, and the role of consular assistance by States to their nationals abroad should be
underlined. Depending on the stage of the crisis (before, during or after) several actions are
required, e.g. regarding preparedness and contingency planning and the reintegration and longer-
21 For more on the impact on Bangladesh and responses, see IOM and Migration Policy Institute 2012 Issue in Brief: Asian
labour migrants and humanitarian crises: lessons from Libya. By Brian Kelly and Anita Jawadurovna Wadud. Available at
http://publications.iom.int/bookstore. See also the website of the IOM Country Office in Bangladesh: www.iom.org.bd.
Date: 18 September 2012 www.iom.int/idmnewyork
term support to returnees and communities.
Lastly, to address the long term consequences of migration, humanitarian, development, and
security perspectives need to come together if the challenges surrounding the situation of migrants
in crisis situations are to be addressed effectively. The large numbers of returnees caused by the
unrest in Libya last year shows the need to address migrant-specific post-conflict vulnerabilities in
migration management planning and preparedness by countries of origin. It also shows the necessity
of multiple levels of coordination and cooperation, for example within and between States, regional
organizations, international organizations and the private sector.
While this workshop aims to draw lessons from events in North Africa and the Sahel region in 2011,
it should be noted that these and similar crises are on-going: as some migrants remain trapped in
Libya to this day, there is initial evidence that some returnees are already re-migrating back to Libya,
prompted by the lack of opportunities in their home countries and the pull of labour demand in
post-crisis Libya. Meanwhile, though in smaller numbers than in Libya, migrants are leaving or are
being evacuated from the continuing conflict in Syria.22