The fate of migrants caught up in natural disasters has only come to heightened attention in recent years as a result of calamities like Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami. These disasters show that migrants are often a forgotten group in crisis situations suffering from very particular forms of disadvantage and discrimination. The juxtaposition of these two cases highlights remarkable commonalities in the migrant experience: despite the fact that these disasters transcend two continents; economic, regional, cultural divides; disparate groups of people; and both the developed and developing world, the fate of Burmese migrants in Thailand following the Tsunami and Latino migrants in the United States after Hurricane Katrina, provides a salutary lesson for disaster planners. It is a warning which merits heeding; given the increasing likelihood of freak weather events resulting from climate change visited on an ever expanding and mobile global population.
The Tsunami hit Thailand’s southern seaboard on the morning of 24 December 2004. A total of 5400 people died but the number of Burmese migrants who were killed or affected remain unknown to this day, conservative estimates suggest 7000 victims [Inter-agency, 2005, 4]. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US half a year later, on 29 August 2005. It displaced 2 million people, killed 1300, affected some 160,000 migrants (regular and irregular) [NCLR, 2006, 8; Batalova, 2005], and left a trail of damage estimated to cost between US$75-200 billion.
This paper is based on information collected by a desk review of literature on migration and natural disasters materials collected through internet research and email enquiry in 2007. The material was originally collected as part of consultancy assignments on natural disasters and migration carried out for International Organisation for Migration (IOM) [Naik et al, 2007]. The papers resulting from those assignments very briefly touched on the issues raised here, but do not develop the themes covered by this paper or make parallels between the plight of migrants facing disasters in the developing and developed world. The analysis therefore is an original comparison of the impacts of the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina on migrants. The paper is based on documents obtained from: UN agencies, inter-governmental organisations (INGO), human rights organisations, research institutes, sector journals, national non-governmental organizations (NGO), lobby groups, government bodies and press agencies.