Refugees and immigrants resilient to disasters

28 February 2017
A damaged building after the Christchurch earthquake

Sociological research has suggested that immigrants and refugees were resilient to the Canterbury earthquakes due to their previous experiences of disasters and war in their homelands.

Associate Professor Steve Matthewman and doctoral candidate Shinya Uekusa interviewed refugees and immigrants caught up in the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010-2011, and also the 9.1 magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people in Japan in 2011.

The study involved 28 in-depth interviews with immigrants, refugees and supporting organisation staff that were conducted in Canterbury and Tohoku in 2015 and 2016. Organisations included the Canterbury Refugee Council (CRC) and Tohoku Help! The interviewees were of varied backgrounds including Afghanistan, Somalia, India, Iraq, the Pacific Islands and Russia.

"As we found, some social groups can be simultaneously vulnerable and resilient to disasters, and/or are resilient because they are vulnerable," explains Steve.

Previous research has found that immigrants and refugees are socially vulnerable as they occupy a position of relative deprivation compared to majority groups. However, findings drawn from in-depth interviews demonstrate social vulnerabilities in disasters are fluid and complex, suggesting that people may be simultaneously vulnerable and resilient.

"The positive impacts of these disasters cannot be denied for the socially vulnerable. These 2010 and 2011 disasters in New Zealand and Japan ironically made formerly invisible groups 'hypervisible' and facilitated their community participation and communication with the mainstream," says Shinya.

"In a sense, disaster can empower the oppressed."

The research found that those who had previous experiences of disasters were generally better equipped to deal with the Canterbury and Tohoku disasters.

Some of the study's Canterbury interviewees, such as the Afghan, Iraqi and Somali refugees, explained that because they had gone through civil war, displacement, and then resettlement in a foreign country, the series of 2010-2011 earthquakes was — while still frightening — still within the realm of manageable.

Jahmir, a former Iraqi soldier and refugee to New Zealand, had lived through multiple wars and had first-hand battlefield experience.

"I thought, for me, [the earthquake] wasn't like too hard…my room was shaking, everything was shaking. I knew what was going on. I knew that was [an] earthquake. But, for me, it wasn't hard because I have been a soldier…I knew how to survive."

One Niuean immigrant woman in Canterbury said "The earthquake was nothing new to me as a Pacific Islander because back home we have hurricanes, we have…cyclones…we have tornadoes. So nothing new."

The study found similar patterns of behaviour in immigrant women living in Tohoku during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Many of the women were 'mail order brides' who had left poverty in the Philippines and married Japanese fishermen. Before the disaster they felt lonely and isolated in their Japanese communities.

"The Tohoku disasters have ironically been empowering for them. Prior to the disasters, they were powerless, socially invisible and isolated in small rural communities," say Steve and Shinya.

"These women obtained social and symbolic capital in being both recognised by, and connected to, the people outside of their insular communities. It is likely that they would have remained oppressed and unnoticed because, as they pointed out, they would not have received as much public attention and support."

"Rather than being seen as passive victims this work suggests that minority groups have valuable skills and resources and as such they should be party to their own recovery."

Vulnerable and resilient? Immigrants and refugees in the 2010-2011 Canterbury and Tohoku disasters