Disasters Put People on the Move, For Better or For Worse

Villagers take shelter after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Photo: ADB
Villagers take shelter after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Photo: ADB

By Kayly Ober

Disaster-related displacement is often negative, but can result in more resilient communities under the right circumstances. This can include better management of remittances sent to family members in the disaster zone.

In 2018, more than 17.2 million people were displaced by sudden-onset disasters worldwide, with Asia and the Pacific accounting for 12.6 million, or more than 73%, of that total, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. While these numbers seem large, they have been growing steadily and are expected to increase in the face of climate change. By 2050, the World Bank predicts there will be about 140 million internal climate migrants with 60 million in South Asia alone due to water scarcity, crop failure, sea-level rise, and storm surges.

Net numbers, however, tell us little about how disasters impact the movement of people in Asia and the Pacific, and how they affect people’s ability to overcome poverty and build resilience. How do disasters affect movement across differentiated segments of society, including the poor? In what ways does migration affect vulnerability and resilience in the face of disaster? What role do remittances play?


Two types of human mobility, migration and displacement, play a prominent role in the region’s economic growth, as well as its vulnerability and resilience. Migration, longer-term movements of people away from places of origin, has long been an integral part of household strategies for coping with risk in the region, with much movement being temporary or seasonal and rural-urban in direction. Nowadays, one in three migrants globally are from the region, according to ADB research.

Meanwhile, displacement, or forced, sudden movements in the face of a risk or hazard, is a constant, as Asia and the Pacific is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to disaster. Displacement usually motivates internal, localized, and short-term movement. However, it should be noted that these two forms of mobility often overlap or exist on a spectrum. For example, rural-urban migrants to the region’s growing number of coastal megacities are significantly more exposed to displacement risks posed by sudden-onset events.

  Remittances can act as a coping mechanism for families affected by disasters

While human mobility is complicated, we do know a few things for certain. For one, the scale and scope of displacement is largely determined by the underlying vulnerability of people and communities to shocks or stresses, the magnitude and frequency of the hazard event at hand, and the ability to cope with such events. Accordingly, the ability to weather a disaster shock and movements related to their impacts is often determined along socioeconomic, gender, and educational divides. For example, the poor are more likely to migrate than other groups when hit by disaster. However, the poorest of the poor may be unable to migrate because they lack the necessary social connections or the resources, including credit, necessary to finance such a move.

While there is an increasing preoccupation with disaster displacement, mobility equally may bolster or hamper the ability to respond to disasters and influence longer-term effects. Financial remittances, for example, can act as a coping mechanism through consumption and investment in housing and communication equipment to increase preparedness. Financial remittances can also be transferred more rapidly and efficiently than relief efforts, allowing households to recover faster, as was found in Samoa after the 2009 tsunami and 2012 cyclone. Some of these recovery gains can be substantial: A 2007 World Bank study found that financial remittances helped compensate for nearly 65% of the income lost because of rainfall shocks in the Philippines.

However, remittances aren’t a silver bullet. Remittance-based outcomes depend on a complex set of inputs, trajectories, and histories. Indeed, the reason behind remittance amount and timing often depends on existing or enduring social relationships, and when these ties decline, normally as migrants stay away from their hometowns and form new family or networks in their places of destination, so too does the amount of remittances sent. Some studies even find that remittances can increase inequality during disasters and extreme events, reaching only those already privileged within a community and being spent only on individual household protection. For example, in Nepal, remittance-receiving households allocated about 20% of their remittance income on construction following the earthquake; while the intent to build a new home by households that did not receive remittances was significantly less.

Financial remittances post-disaster also have impacts over time and space that may increase or decrease long-term resilience. For example, in Thailand, increasing investment in sugar cane and rubber trees, and the introduction of new businesses such as chicken and pig farming in the northeast of the country, often made possible by the financial or social remittances of return migrants, has led to increased use of fertilizers and pesticides and to land degradation.

Disaster-related displacement is often a negative outcome, but migration, under the right set of circumstances, can be an effective adaptive response. Policy responses now will determine to what degree mobility will push families farther into poverty or support resilience in the future.

Much headway has been made in acknowledging the need to incorporate migration aspects into strategic policy spaces, such as social protection and urban planning; and migrants into development planning processes in general. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even lay out specific targets related to migration, including the official SDG 10 indicator to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

However, much work remains to be done to move from the aspirational to the operational.

This blog post is based on research from the April 2019 Asian Development Outlook.