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close this bookDisaster Economics (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 56 p.)
close this folderPART 2 - Alternative disaster scenarios
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe general multi-sectoral disaster
View the documentDisasters caused by economic mismanagement
View the documentDisasters involving displaced populations and refugees
View the documentDisasters leading to food insecurity
View the documentDisasters involving environmental challenges
View the documentConclusion

Disasters involving displaced populations and refugees


Many unstable situations result in substantial population migration. Sometimes this migration results from natural disasters, like floods or earthquakes, and sometimes from human-made disasters, like desertification and war. In some situations, particularly where war and food insecurity are combined, many of the migrants cross national boundaries and become refugees. There are, in all these cases, substantial economic consequences to the individuals forced to move, as well as to the communities and countries from and to which they move.

In the special case of refugees, the are three “durable” solutions proposed by UNHCR to reestablish refugees in viable communities.

Silopi camp

UNHCR/A. Hollman; Refugees, June 1991

Voluntary repatriation, or the re-establishment of the refugee within a community in his or her own country, is considered the most desirable solution. Where voluntary repatriation is impossible, local settlement in the country of first asylum is the next most appropriate approach to promote both self-reliance and viable integration of refugees. Most local settlements are in rural areas, at either spontaneous or planned settlements. The criteria for seeking resettlement in a third country derive not only from conditions in the country of origin, but also in the country of first asylum. Some countries permit temporary asylum, on condition that resettlement to a third country will be undertaken as soon as practically possible. Ethnic, political or economic reasons may render local integration impossible, requiring the need to find a third country.

Populations moving internally in a country face several of the same solutions. They may find an existing local community in which to resettle and restore their lives; they may move to a previously uninhabited area and create a new community; they may move back to their original homes; or they may seek permission to move to another country.


Each of the potential solutions identified has economic consequences and humanitarian trade-offs. When governments accommodate migrants in spontaneous or organized (permanent or semi-permanent) local settlements they invariably incur costs to cover infrastructure as well as additional food requirements and basic needs.

The migrants themselves are often subject to exploitation by the host country and local communities. However, they also bring certain benefits with them. For example, once refugees are settled locally, they are a source of local purchasing power, and provide skilled and unskilled labor.

If governments desire to integrate migrants they may incur additional costs for retraining, health, education, housing and social security, which will be partially offset by purchasing power and labor/skill benefits.

Where expatriate populations are expelled suddenly from a host country, and have to return home, or go to a third country, (e.g. Palestinians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis or Yemenis working in Gulf States) they will lose their sources of income. Reduced remittance income will have a serious effect on family dependents and the balance of payments in the expatriate worker's home country. Such people may be forced to flee without taking their personal goods and other assets. On the other hand, if they bring savings with them, there may be an asset increase to their new or home countries. Overall, the cost to reintegrate returning persons may be very high and significantly strain existing service systems.

Population movements, especially when they involve refugees, are a sensitive political issue as well as a major humanitarian concern. Thus, it is difficult to be sure how to weigh the costs and benefits associated with a particular policy option. Certainly, the trade-offs will be heavily influenced by political considerations, even if all the costs and benefits can be quantified.

Q. Choose a recent population displacement with which you are familiar. Identify the economic consequences to the displaced persons and their new communities.