Anticipatory action with refugees and other displaced people: what needs to be considered?
Global displacement is rising. Today, 1 out of every 78 people in the world is displaced. While many of the world’s 100 million displaced people have fled due to conflict, during 2010-19 an estimated 23.1 million people were displaced due to weather-related events – and this trend is projected to continue.
While some research has explored the role of anticipatory action in preventing so-called disaster displacement, including the challenges in doing so, very few anticipatory action initiatives directly focus on displaced populations. This is despite the potential – and need – for anticipatory action with these populations, in both urban and camp settings. Even when people have moved away from one particular disaster, they are often still vulnerable to others.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “[p]oorly or unplanned urban growth and substandard construction in hazard-prone areas increase disaster displacement risk. New displacement takes place regularly in densely populated informal settlements on floodplains, steep hillsides and coastlines exposed to cyclones in cities.” Camps for refugees and internally displaced people are often placed in hazard-prone parts of countries, further illustrating the risk of climate disasters for displaced people. One of many examples is in Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees regularly encounter flash floods and landslides in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, as well as monsoon, cyclones and storm surges on the highly contentious island of Bhasan Char.
Accounting for trauma among refugees and displaced populations
At the same time that they experience heightened exposure to hazards, refugees are a population with high rates of trauma. Any actions targeting them, including anticipatory action, must take this into account. Trauma is broadly defined as an emotional response to experiences which overwhelm our ability to respond or cope. (It is equally important to note that trauma and resilience can, and often do, exist hand in hand.) Statistics on trauma among refugees vary, ranging from 20 per cent dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder to up to 75 per cent in some populations.
As one head of a refugee-serving organization in Kampala, Uganda, told me, “[Within refugee responses] there is often not really a recognition of why people became refugees in the first place… Not all but many people left after they had been severely harmed – they left after soldiers had come, raped them, killed their families – so really, they left way too late… yet the humanitarian system still continues to treat them as if they have just run away without first having been harmed.”
Given the likely high prevalence of trauma, as well as physical issues, in many refugee populations, it is imperative that any anticipatory action takes these into account.
A trauma-informed approach to anticipatory action
While the role of trauma is rarely considered explicitly in anticipatory action, practitioners can build on trauma-informed approaches from fields such as psychology and health to better tailor their interventions. While different fields or schools of thought may have different components of trauma-informed practice, there are multiple overlapping core tenets. Key components relevant for anticipatory action for displaced populations include the following:
- Safety: Beneficiaries, as well as staff, feel physically and psychologically safe.
- Trust/transparency: Decisions are made with transparency and with the aim of developing and maintaining trust.
- Peer support: Individuals with shared pasts or experiences are part of service delivery and help inform the rollout of assistance or programmes.
- Collaboration/mutuality: There is an emphasis on sharing skills and decision-making with the aim of levelling power differences between staff and beneficiaries.
- Empowerment/choice: Beneficiaries’ strengths and preferences are recognized and built on.
- For example, this could involve identifying community needs and preferences before developing an anticipatory action protocol; this can be achieved through interviews with community members about different topics, such as the best way to contact them, or appropriate ways to gather people in evacuation shelters or cooling buses.
- Cultural, historical and gender issues: Historical trauma and current biases and marginalization are recognized and addressed.
When undertaking anticipatory action with refugees and other displaced populations – and indeed other populations as well – a trauma-informed approach could include the following elements:
- Targeted communication campaigns with refugees, distinct from those for host populations (e.g., in terms of language and medium). Build on existing research that identifies effective ways to communicate with refugee populations. Partnerships with actors already working with refugees can also identify existing communication channels, which can be ‘piggybacked’ on; an example is the UN Refugee Agency’s work to increase two-way communication with refugees on the move.
- Gain trust to counter possible mistrust of authority figures. This could be established in part through peer support, wherein trained fellow refugees disseminate information. Empowerment and choice could also be fostered through information about hazards and the identification of anticipatory elements (e.g., the location of evacuation shelters) being discussed with community members in advance. Such activities may lead to a higher uptake of action, as sudden warnings would be coupled with prior information and knowledge.
- Encourage psychosocial support in advance of and during extreme events. Crowded cooling shelters, panic among members of populations, and the extremity of a weather event such as a flash flood or cyclone can all induce traumatic flashbacks or symptoms. These are stressful for all people, regardless of their trauma history. Working with local religious leaders or training community workers in psychosocial support, with an emphasis on culturally appropriate support, are ways to address feelings and reactions that may impede anticipatory action. Given the high prevalence of trauma in many refugee populations, psychosocial support should be a key element of anticipatory assistance for displaced people.
Refugees and other displaced people are currently left out of the conversation about anticipatory action, while anticipatory action itself is a new concept for many refugee practitioners. As climate hazards and global displacement increase in number, it is imperative to consider how anticipatory action can be most effective for displaced people. As anticipatory action pilots for displaced people develop, a trauma-informed approach presents a promising way forward for assisting these populations in advance of extreme weather events and climate disasters.
This blog was written by Dr Evan Easton-Calabria, senior researcher for the 4As project, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, and research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Evan is currently a FFVT Fellow at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), Bonn, Germany, and can be reached by email.
Photo: Sardashti Camp for Ezidi IDPs in Sinjar/Shingal, Iraq.© Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash