Harvey and Irma Are Part of a Global Humanitarian Challenge

U.S. Military helping people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo: 1st Lt. Zachary West/U.S. Air Force 2017


*This entry was originally published here.

First it was Harvey, and then came Irma.

Both were destructive.

Images and footage coming from Texas were heartbreaking. Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc in the Lone Star State leaving thousands of homes abandoned, covered by several inches of water. Cars were destroyed and highways immersed in floods of water. Residents fled to safety on inflatable boats or by feet, wading through knee-deep and even waist-high water.

A few days later, Irma made its landfall farther east, on the Caribbean Islands, Puerto Rico and some parts of Florida. At least, 43 people were killed in the Caribbean and at least 18 in the Southeastern U.S. In French Caribbean territory, the storm caused “major damage”, according to French Overseas Territories Minister, Annick Girardin. Even Saint Martin’s Government buildings, some of the sturdiest structures on the island, were destroyed.

In Texas, the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey was estimated between USD 150–180 billion by its Governor, Greg Abbott. Harvey was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years, killing about 50 people, displacing more than a million residents and damaging some 200,000 homes.

It might be too early to determine how many of those who have been displaced will be able to return to their homes; however Harvey and Irma are here to remind us that displacement linked to natural disasters has become one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of our century. Between 2008 and 2016, 227.6 million people were forced from their homes due to floods, earthquakes, tropical storms, and other natural hazards, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

For several years now, IOM, the UN Migration Agency has been a first-responder to scenes devastated by natural disasters around the world and has, unfortunately, witnessed too often their disastrous and deadly effects.


In August, floods in Sierra Leone’s capital killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Photo: UN Migration Agency ( IOM) 2017

Disaster-induced displacement is a global phenomenon. Currently, extreme rainfall has led to devastating floods and landslides across Nepal, India and Bangladesh killing nearly 1,200 and displacing millions. Three weeks ago as well, the West African nation of Sierra Leone was hit by floods and mudslides killing nearly 500 people, with over 600 missing and leaving about 4,000 people homeless.

Many of those who are displaced in the context of disasters might never return to their home and it’s most likely to be the case for several residents of Texas.

Already, the Lone Star State was home to about 100,000 evacuees, who had fled News Orleans during Katrina in 2005. It is still unclear how many of them have been affected and displaced again by Harvey. Globally, it is not unusual to see individuals displaced multiple times because of extreme-weather events or gradual environmental degradation such as desertification and rising sea levels.

Ironically, Texas is also home to the country’s largest refugee community. The Lone Star State has led the nation in refugee resettlements for the last five years and after the passage of Harvey, it is expected that refugees who had fled their country have been displaced again.

Twenty-one year old Ahmed Badr, who had come to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee, was stuck at home with his family for four days in Houston.

“Our neighborhood was not affected as badly as others,” said Badr in a phone interview. “At the peak of the storm, the streets were flooded but it wasn’t as bad as for some friends who lost their entire home. We got very lucky!”

Badr and his family were not as lucky in July 2006 when a bomb ripped through their house in Baghdad, Iraq. In 2008, when approved for resettlement in the United States, the Badr family was resettled in Texas. Houston became their new home.

“Tragedy doesn’t discriminate. It affects refugees, citizens, people across all shapes, sizes and colors but seeing the resilience on people’s faces as they left their homes and came back was really incredibly powerful,” added Badr.

Badr was only seven, when he fled Iraq — too young to comprehend why his family had to leave. Now as an adult, he says, that he has become aware of the reasons that push families to leave and the implications. “I didn’t understand what exactly it meant when my house was bombed; whereas now I am more equipped to fully think it through, to think about the implications and how people are affected by a tragedy,” said Badr.

Since the early 1990s, IOM has been advocating for better understanding of the complex linkages between migration, displacement, environment and climate change.

There is increasing recognition that climate change and the environment significantly affect human mobility as confirmed in the Paris Agreement at UNFCCC COP21. Migration can be an adaptation strategy to cope with climate change where mobility becomes the sole alternative to reduce vulnerability.

Environmental migration, will continue; however, we must minimize the negative impacts on affected communities. One avenue to achieve this is through increased collaboration between environmental, humanitarian and development policy makers.

From the U.S. to Africa to South Asia and the Pacific, no country is today immune to natural hazards. All countries — developed or developing — face challenges with respect to displacement. Yet, those who are poor and marginalized often suffer disproportionately from the effects of disasters, in part because their houses have less solid construction and they are less likely to own their homes, which means they are less likely to be eligible for assistance to rebuild them. Poor and marginalized individuals might also not have the resources to leave areas exposed to hazards.

The most vulnerable groups, such as women, children and people with disabilities, tend to be the first to suffer from the chaos during and after a disaster, as reported by Vox.

Both developed and developing countries are likely to face more displacement as sudden-onset disasters — hurricanes, floods, landslides — and slow-onset disasters — drought and sea level rise — continue and will likely force more people from their homes. Developing effective policies to prevent, respond to and recover from disaster-induced displacement is vital. Countries, regardless of where they are, can learn from one another and work together to ensure solutions are found to those who are displaced.


About the author:

Hajer Naili is the UN Migration Agency (IOM)’s Communications and Social Media Coordinator in Washington D.C.


The disinformation escalation during the pandemic and how to contain it

The disinformation escalation during the pandemic and how to contain it
Categoria: Migrant Protection and Assistance
Autor: Guest Contributor

The multidimensional aspect of the pandemic is often referred to in political debates and in the media, as it has not only health but also economic and social implications. Due to the urgent, critical and often discouraging nature of COVID-19, the society is reacting to the advancement of the emergency by experiencing emotions such as fear and rejection, stimulated by the spread of false information. This is the case of migrants, who are frequently accused of bringing the virus to a certain country or of causing the increase in cases. Migrants are immediate victims of accusations that, however, often lack solid grounds.

There are many stories of misinformation and alarmism in the Americas, such as the one that concerned a group of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Oluto, a town in southern Veracruz, in Mexico, and were welcomed in a specialized shelter for humanitarian reasons and to avoid further contagions. The immigrants were victims of false statements propagated by some media, which reported an incorrect number of migrants and described them as carriers of the virus, although their state of health was being monitored.

Similar stories and complaints can be traced in other countries in the region. In places where the figure of the migrant is sometimes used as a scapegoat, the advance of the virus has once again accentuated the unfavorable perception of the migrant population. Accused of bringing or disproportionately contributing to the transmission of COVID-19, migrants go through painful experiences that worsen the precarious situations in which they often live.

Migrants children and adolescents, who suffer from more vulnerable conditions, are particularly affected. According to a UNICEF report, along with the advance of the pandemic, there has been a sudden increase in deportations, especially of children and adolescents. The deportations prevented immigrants from complying with asylum application procedures and were carried out without verified evidence that they were affected by the virus or not. Therefore, the damaging narrative and misinformation about the figure of the migrant during the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing not only to a perception of the foreigner that is permeated with xenophobic traits, but also to the worsening of the precariousness of the state of the migrants.

In Costa Rica xenophobic incidents were also experienced by the Nicaraguan population. When new outbreaks of COVID-19 were found last June in certain agricultural areas of the country, as well as construction sites and other sectors that employ migrant workers, particularly from Nicaragua, migrants were seen as responsible for the advancement of the pandemic in the Central American country. In particular, the outbreaks registered in some piñeras located in the city of Los Chiles in the north of the country, which transported irregular migrants without complying with any type of health protocol, provoked further xenophobic reactions towards the Nicaraguan migrant population instead to hold those who mobilized them accountable.

Weeks later, in the central american country, the high percentage of the migrant population residing in barracks or informal homes in the Greater Metropolitan Area, was identified as a possible source of contagion. Local authorities reacted by closing some of the properties with fences to prevent residents from leaving. In this regard, some members of the Costa Rican academic community pointed out that the attention of the media has not been sufficiently directed towards the practical and actual reasons that caused an increase in contagion in that area, such as the limits of space in the factories that did not allow maintaining minimum distances.

These episodes highlight the environment of tension, xenophobia and marginalization of migrants. They affirm the urgency of encouraging data verification, together with the search for reliable sources and the need for an inclusive and diverse approach in the media.


What can we do?

The impact of COVID-19 on people's perception of “others” has emphasized how misinformation about the virus is a dangerous phenomenon not only for people's health, but also for social cohesion.

To meet this new challenge, the United Nations launched the Verified campaign, which seeks to denounce misinformation around COVID-19 and at the same time invites to assume a critical attitude towards the information received. The campaign responds to the drastic consequences that disinformation can generate, such as false alarmism and discrimination. The news and false claims not only exacerbate the health crisis, raising doubts about what to do or not do to protect oneself from the virus, but also encourage expressions of hatred and xenophobia that try to blame certain populations for the pandemic. The United Nations initiative seeks to educate on the relevance of sharing reliable, verified and updated content, whether written or oral.

Verified calls for reflection before sharing and reporting news based on real events in a responsible manner. To achieve this, the campaign is articulated in three specific areas: science, to save lives; solidarity, to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions, to advocate for the support of the populations that have been affected by COVID-19. This triple purpose underlines the social and health impact of the campaign and the importance of rejecting unverified information.

Inviting our family and friends to share only verified and reliable information is the most effective action we can take right now to fight against disinformation and its very dangerous consequences on public health and the cohesion of our societies.