E.g., 12/05/2023
E.g., 12/05/2023
Assessing the Tsunami's Effects on Migration

Assessing the Tsunami's Effects on Migration

In recent memory, no natural disaster can compare to the tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed over 270,000 people in 11 countries in Asia and Africa. The hardest hit were Indonesia, specifically the Banda Aceh province in northern Sumatra, and Sri Lanka.

The world's immediate attention has been focused on the relief effort and the disaster's impact on internal displacement. However, policymakers will need to think about the tsunami's wider and longer-term implications for international migration. Already, the tsunami is affecting international migration trends, and, as a result, the migration policies of a number of countries have already shifted.

This article briefly explores how the disaster is affecting diaspora groups and their contribution to development, the vulnerability of migrant workers, the return of irregular migrants, the resettlement of victims, the trafficking of children, and the future effects of internal displacement on international migration patterns.

Diasporas and Development

Not all the effects of the tsunami are necessarily negative. Indeed, the tsunami disaster has highlighted the ways in which migrants can be a resource during times of emergency.

Migrants in the diaspora, although dispersed from their homelands, remain in some way part of their community of origin. Internationally, the diaspora links home and host societies, providing a network through which resources can flow. Financial capital, including remittances, is one of the key resources which flow through such networks.

The rapid mobilization of diaspora groups in the wake of the tsunami disaster indicates the valuable contribution migrants can make in emergency situations. Asian migrants — from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand — who live around the world were quick to organize different kinds of assistance and relief actions to aid their home countries.

For example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America gave $40,000 from their Seva (social service) fund to support victims at home. In South Africa, the Tamil Federation launched a special fund in aid of the millions left homeless in Sri Lanka. Through migrant workers' unions, Indonesian workers in Hong Kong sent home financial aid as well as clothes, food, and other supplies.

The strong diaspora communities of the most affected regions have not only made their own financial contributions, but have also mobilized others to make donations. The Indonesia Community Union in Qatar joined forces with the local Indonesian Embassy to collect money; with just over 18,000 Indonesians living in Qatar, the fund gathered more than $19,000 in just four days.

Other diaspora communities have also provided non-financial forms of support. For example, the Thai Welfare Association in Australia is offering counseling services for those who lost family members.

Diasporas are also playing an advocacy role. The 20,000-strong Somali community in Canada lobbied their host government to focus more of its aid efforts on Somalia, which they believe has been largely ignored in the relief effort.

Another way in which assistance is being provided is by means of the transfer of skills. Following an appeal from the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Bandaranaika Kumaratunga, for doctors working overseas to return home, many have done so, joining other diaspora workers with much-needed skills.

The contribution by diasporas in support of the relief work and reconstruction in the devastated areas is potentially huge. Indians overseas, including those who have acquired new citizenship, number over 20 million (two million in the United States alone). Many of these migrants are also relatively wealthy.

This is not the first time that diasporas have been mobilized following a disaster. Following the earthquake in the Gujarat province of India in 2001, the Gujarati communities in the U.S., UK, Japan, France, and Germany raised money to fund relief efforts. In Silicon Valley alone, the Indian population raised over $2 million.

These examples are a powerful reminder of the vast economic resources that diasporas can muster and — if given appropriate opportunities and incentives — apply to relief and development purposes in their countries of origin.

The challenge for policymakers is to convert this desire and ability to contribute to home country reconstruction and development into longer-term, sustainable projects.

Migrant Workers — the Nameless and Forgotten Victims

In some countries, the tsunami victims included migrant workers, in many cases undocumented. But, in terms of rescue and relief efforts, as well as media coverage, they received less attention than foreign tourists and the nationals of the affected countries.

The most high-profile migrants affected by the disaster were the thousands of laborers from Myanmar that had been living in the now totally destroyed resort area of Phang Nga in Thailand, working mainly in the construction, tourism, and fishing sectors.

According to the Law Society of Thailand, more than 100,000 Myanmar migrants work in southern Thailand, but only a total of 5,139 workers are actually registered. It is difficult to accurately estimate the numbers of displaced, dead, and missing. Currently, 7,000 Myanmar migrant workers and their families are registered with the Thai authorities to receive help following the tsunami, but it is thought that many more are in need of help.

These migrants were vulnerable even before the disaster, enduring poor living and working conditions. As Thailand and Myanmar have no agreements regulating the recruitment of labor migrants, migrants are vulnerable to exploitation and have to rely on private "brokers" to find jobs. They enter the Thai labor market at its lowest levels.

Following the destruction of the sectors in which they were predominantly employed, many of these migrants have found themselves without work, money, or shelter. Those who have found work are either offered deferred payment for their labor or are working in exchange for food.

A joint mission by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Bank, and a number of UN agencies found thousands of unregistered, and thus unrecognized, migrants are not receiving needed help; many are in hiding.

These workers are reluctant to approach the authorities for fear of deportation, and there have been claims of discrimination at aid camps. A separate mission conducted by the World Health Organization, IOM, and UNICEF noted that many migrants have limited access to health services, and existing migrant settlements lack basic sanitation.

Some of the undocumented migrant workers who requested assistance to return home encountered difficulties because their own governments initially refused to allow them to cross the border. This leaves them in the particularly precarious position of being unwanted by both home and host governments. Other workers, even those who are registered, fear a temporary return home to visit relatives may cost them the right to work in Thailand.

International agencies have recommended both the temporary suspension of deportations, so that undocumented migrants can access humanitarian services, and the creation of temporary right-to-return permits, so that migrant workers can be reunited with families without fear of losing their livelihoods.

In the longer term, as Thailand recovers from the disaster, the renewed demand for migrant labor needs to be taken into consideration when developing policy responses to the tsunami.

Enforced Return of Irregular Migrants

Elsewhere, irregular migrants overseas who are citizens of the most affected countries have also been affected, as measures to combat irregular migration in Asia and, in particular, enforced return policies, have changed.

UNHCR recommended on January 12, 2005, that all countries suspend, initially for a period of three months, all involuntary returns to affected areas in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and Somalia. Those subject to involuntary returns include asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected and migrants who have illegally entered a country.

Switzerland's Federal Office for Migration has postponed the deportation of rejected asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, India, and Somalia until further notice, while the UK's Home Office announced temporary suspension of forcible returns.

In North America, the Canadian government delayed the deportation of approximately 4,000 individuals from Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. The U.S. government temporarily stopped the deportation of people from Sri Lanka and the Maldives, allowing them to stay in the United States until April 7, 2005.

Non-criminal immigrants from other affected countries will be allowed to file a petition in order to remain in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service will also verify options to allow students from the affected countries to work and stay in the United States under a temporary protected status, even if they are there illegally. Approximately 72,000 students and dependents were admitted to the U.S. from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia in 2003.

It will be interesting to see whether this "softer" approach to deporting irregular migrants will have a longer-term impact on return policies to the Asian region and lead to more consideration of the economic conditions awaiting returnees. However, Malaysia has begun its planned operation for returns to the affected areas after ending a temporary postponement on March 1.

Indonesians make up the bulk of the estimated one million migrants working illegally in Malaysia, many of them from Aceh Province, which bore the brunt of the earthquake. There is a risk that such returns to areas affected by the disaster, where there are few local job opportunities, could exacerbate the continuing humanitarian crisis in the region.

Resettlement of Victims

A number of traditional immigration countries have adjusted their immigration and visa policies to make it easier for victims of the tsunami to be accepted as permanent immigrants.

For example, Canada announced it would expedite immigration paperwork from victims who have relatives in Canada if their applications were already in the system. There are approximately 433,000 persons who were born in the main affected areas (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia) living in Canada, and far more Canadian-born who retain family links with the region.

As of March 2005, the Canadian government has fast-tracked 1,000 applications for landed-immigrant status from tsunami victims. In addition, the Immigration Department will fast-track the procedure for Canadian citizens and permanent residents who plan to sponsor family members from the affected areas.

Canadian immigration officials also met with 12 groups whose home countries were hit by the tsunami in order to hear their concerns. In Toronto, a panel of immigration officers met with members of the Sri Lankan, Indian, Indonesian, and Somali communities to determine the role of these communities in helping to resettle people.

Australia, home to over 200,000 people born in affected countries (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia) has also put high priority on processing temporary visas for victims and fast-tracking existing applications.

Nevertheless, shortly after the catastrophe and despite these offers of resettlement, the Indonesian ambassador to Australia rejected Australia's offer to take in those displaced from the tsunami-hit areas such as Aceh. Ambassador Imron Cotan stated that he did not believe that taking them to Australia would help, but would cause them even more distress owing to the foreign environment, language, and lifestyle.

Finally, the European Union (EU) proposed offering temporary asylum to child victims of the disaster, allowing several months in Europe to recover from the trauma. However, this proposal required an extension of current EU regulations on temporary asylum, and has so far not resulted in any action being taken.

These examples demonstrate the willingness of countries to make some adjustments to their immigration policies in the wake of natural disasters. A facilitated immigration procedure or temporary visa is only the first step, however. Tsunami victims resettled in other countries will need special predeparture assistance and post-arrival assistance from the sponsoring government so they can rebuild their lives and settle in a new country.


The tsunami has left thousands of children orphaned or separated from their families. In Aceh alone, over 35,000 children have lost one or both parents. UNICEF has warned that these child survivors will face major risks from malnutrition, diseases, and human traffickers. In addition, there are many men and women without employment or family support, placing them in a highly exploitable economic position.

John Budd, spokesman for UNICEF in Indonesia, confirmed that a child had been trafficked from Aceh to the nearby city of Medan in the first days after the disaster. There were also a number of unconfirmed reports of children being trafficked to Malaysia and Jakarta, and a mobile phone text message that was sent widely around Asia advertising the sale of 300 Aceh orphans.

In response, UNICEF has set up registration schemes around Aceh for all orphans or children separated from their families, and made efforts to arrange fostering by extended families or reputable care-takers. The Indonesian and the Sri Lankan governments have also issued bans on adoptions and the travel of children under 16 unless accompanied by their parents for an indefinite period of time.

With respect to adults, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women has noted that, following the tsunami, women would be especially vulnerable to traffickers who take advantage of those who have lost their family and support networks, both social and financial, and who are desperate to find a route out of their situation. This concern is further underlined by the size of the sex tourism industry in Thailand and regionally.

There was extensive evidence of trafficking in the region prior to the disaster. The U.S. State Department "Trafficking in Persons" report stated that India, Thailand, and Indonesia were source, transit, and destination countries for persons trafficked into forced labor and sexual exploitation. Sri Lanka has been predominantly a source country for women trafficked to the Middle East for forced labor and sexual coercion. Also, there have been many cases of trafficking rings selling babies for adoption as well as trafficking children for sexual exploitation and forced labor in the region.

All four countries have some level of internal trafficking activity in addition to cross-border trafficking. Though to date confirmed cases of trafficking of tsunami victims remain minimal, there is a need for the authorities to remain vigilant because the increased vulnerability of tsunami-affected populations heightens the risks of their being trafficked.

These countries also have counter-trafficking strategies in place — which vary in effectiveness — and have made increasing numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. In addition, all have begun programs for the protection and assistance of victims and public awareness campaigns. These efforts need to be encouraged in response to the potential risk of increased trafficking in the region.

Internal Displacement, Environmental Degradation, and International Migration

The tsunami's long-term effects on the future mobility of the affected population are unknown, though there are indications that migration occurs following a catastrophic event.

An ECLAC study on the socio-economic impact of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 noted that migration in search of work was a common occurrence, with 17 percent of households in Nicaragua reporting the movement of one or more members following the disaster. Inadequate data on internal and international migration trends following natural disasters has prevented any in-depth analysis, but a number of observations on possible "push" and "pull" factors can be made.

The overall impact on the economies of the region is expected to be small. In Indonesia, the Banda Aceh region accounts for only two percent of GDP in Indonesia, and most of the high-revenue producing industries were left untouched by the disaster.

Those most deeply affected by the disaster have been the poorest segments of the population, whose livelihoods depended on local resources and industries, most obviously fishing, agriculture, and tourism. These local industries will take time to rebuild. It will be several years before saltwater-flooded fields are capable of producing rice crops again.

For those who have lost entire families and businesses, particularly among the younger population, the incentives to stay and rebuild may be lessened, and greater numbers may be encouraged to seek employment overseas, for example, in the Middle East.

Others may be forced through family obligations and narrowed income options to move to urban and industrial areas in search of work. Trends in internal migration in Asia have shown that as rural industries such as agriculture have stagnated, family members have increasingly migrated to cities in order to increase their individual income and diversify the family income.

A similar situation can be envisaged here, especially as the loss of family members and the addition of their newly dependent children would place added pressure on remaining breadwinners. Ironically, increased urbanization has been blamed for exacerbating the size and frequency of natural disasters in recent years, suggesting a negative cycle of events.

At the same time, donor-related funding rushing into the region for long-term reconstruction and infrastructure projects may well be providing new opportunities for the local workforce. International agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Mercy Corps, have set up cash-for-work programs to pay local workers to help them clean up much of the devastated regions in an attempt to rebuild the local economy and labor market.

Though this cannot replace lost investments such as boats and shops, it does reduce the most immediate income needs and could stem outflows of people desperate for employment. Indeed, the magnitude of the reconstruction effort may draw in temporary workers from surrounding, unaffected regions and countries.

One must also consider the emotional trauma caused by the disaster. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy and loss of so many loved ones, many victims may prefer to make a fresh start in a new location. Policies for reconstruction thus need to consider the mental health of the victims, in addition to their economic and social rehabilitation.

The ways in which environmental factors affect international migration, and vice versa, require further study given the growing scale of environmental displacement. According to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent's "World Disasters Report 2002," the number of people affected by weather-related disasters rose from 275,000 in the 1970s to 1.2 million in the 1980s to 18 million in the 1990s. These statistics incorporate those affected by things like cyclones, floods, landslides, droughts, and extremes of temperature.

Given that legal channels for migration remain limited, there is a risk that the tsunami disaster may contribute to an increase in poverty and irregular migration in Asia. This means that those responsible for designing development policies in the tsunami-affected areas will need to be sensitive to the possible migratory effects of their programs in the coming years.


This article has sketched a few of the most immediate effects of the tsunami disaster on international migration and suggested that the disaster is likely to have a longer-term impact on internal and international migration in Asia.

The effects are likely to be wide-ranging and both positive and negative. More detailed research and monitoring is required to understand better how this massive disaster is likely to influence the movement of people in Asia in the future.


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