Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Thailand Case Study: Migration and Natural Disasters – The Impact on Migrants of the 2011 Floods in Thailand

Executive Summary

This case study examines the immediate and longer-term consequences of the 2011 floods in Thailand on migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. It was conducted as part of the EU-funded project Migrants in Countries in Crisis: Supporting an Evidence-Based Approach for Effective and Cooperative State Action. Under this project, six case studies were prepared. The current report represents one of these. Due to the nature of the 2011 flood disaster in Thailand and the relatively fast rebound of the Thai economy, most of the migrants affected by the crisis were still in Thailand at the time this research was done. For many of them, the longer-term effects of the disaster stemmed mainly from their experiences during the crisis, the choices they made to cope and other events in the aftermath of the floods, particularly changes in Thailand’s migrant registration system.


This research used desk research and semi-structured interviews. Information for the case study was collected between March 2016 and October 2016. Most interviews were conducted in Thailand from March 2016 to June 2016, though five interviews were conducted in the following months by Skype. A variety of stakeholders were approached: migrant workers, government representatives, international organisations, civil society organisations (CSO), employers, landlords and experts. Interview subjects were selected based on their experience of the 2011 floods, their involvement in the 2011 crisis response or their expertise in working in situations of natural disaster or in working with migrants.

Migrant Responses to Crisis

Migrants’ awareness of the impending floods and their consequent preparedness seems to have depended on their level of integration into Thai society, in particular, their ability to understand and speak the Thai language. Some migrants were completely surprised by the floods, and only realised the severity of the situation when they saw the floodwaters rising. Exclusion due to language barriers and ethnic segregation was a main reason for their lack of information. Migrants who were more socially embedded and could speak Thai were better informed, for example, via media, employers and rumours. They took steps to protect their homes with sandbags and secure their valuables and they bought stocks of food and drinking water.

Moving constituted a central coping strategy and operated on various levels. For many migrants who had friends or relatives in the same building, moving to an upper level within the house was the most obvious strategy for escaping the flood. Migrants also found shelter with friends, employers or coethnics, or temporarily stayed in higher elevated areas such as on a bridge. Few migrants moved to a government-operated shelter. Although people without proper ID or documentation were allowed to stay in these shelters, incoming registration procedures may have discouraged migrants with irregular status from seeking them out.

Most migrants interviewed stayed in Thailand during the crisis. There were several reasons for this: migrants interviewed reported that very little support was available for returning home; migrants without travel documents and valid permits were prohibited by law from travelling across provincial borders; and some migrants underestimated the severity of the floods until it was too late and they were trapped. Still, many said that if such a crisis were to happen again they would want to go back to their home country.

The 2011 floods enabled the migrants’ to demonstrate agency. In contributing to the clean-up and helping neighbours, migrants experienced a sense of worth and belonging. Migrants also formed support networks. They mobilised resources to buy relief supplies, for other migrants as well as for Thai neighbours, as emerged from our interviews with CSOs.

Institutional Responses

The government’s response to the crisis focused mainly on floodwater management and emergency relief, particularly distributing emergency supplies to the affected population, setting up evacuation centres and providing health services. The military stepped in, providing ships, trucks and soldiers, when the government faced logistical problems in transporting and distributing relief items. As the floods worsened, the official agency responsible for coordinating this crisis response, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM), was side-lined, overturning the existing command structures. Instead, a new Flood Relief Operations Command (FROC) was created. The staff of DDPM, who were trained in disaster response, were hardly involved in the operations thereafter. This introduced confusion about the different institutions’ responsibilities, particularly regarding migrants. In fact, no authority was designated as responsible for migrants during the crisis; and no standard policies or guidelines were available on managing assistance to migrants in the flood-affected areas.

Several aspects of the emergency response demonstrate that vulnerable people, including migrants, were often left unattended. For example, information regarding the floods and an emergency hotline for healthcare services were only promoted and available in Thai. They therefore excluded much of the non-Thai-speaking population. Furthermore, relief packages were distributed according to census household data, which left out the large unregistered population of migrants with irregular status. CSOs, including some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), migrant associations and volunteers, were the primary actors supporting migrants during the crisis. Intergovernmental organisations and donors provided assistance through CSOs as well.

Policy Learning

Most migrants and stakeholders interviewed had never before experienced such a severe natural disaster. In retrospect, they said that if such a disaster were to occur again they would be more prepared and know better how to respond. With regard to migrants caught up in natural disasters, two main policy lessons emerged: the need for smart coordination between the different stakeholders, particularly those directly supporting migrants, and the importance of guaranteeing and facilitating migrants’ access to emergency measures. Regarding the former, pre-established divisions of labour, collaboration and information sharing would increase efficiency in providing assistance to migrants during a crisis. Regarding the latter, foreigners, hence migrants, have been included in new emergency plans in a general way, but vulnerable groups, such as low-skilled and undocumented migrant workers, are still not specifically targeted in the plans.