The connections between migration, crises and social protection are complex and multi-dimensional. Crises caused by armed conflicts, climate-related disasters, economic and other occurrences can have great impacts on forced migration, demanding rapid and effective responses. Shocks can lead to large numbers of people with temporary vulnerabilities and can further aggravate the situation of already vulnerable groups (Kuriakose et al., 2013). This highlights the essential role of social protection in the context of humanitarian crisis.


Migration, shocks and social protection can be analysed through several perspectives. I point out four of these perspectives here:

1.     Social protection as a preventive tool for migration in crisis contexts.

2.     Migration as a form of informal social protection in times of shock or crisis.

3.     Social protection for migrants in countries of destination.

4.     Social protection for migrants living in countries in crisis.


1. Social protection as a preventive tool for migration in crisis contexts: A well-established system of social protection at crisis contexts can reduce vulnerabilities and minimise risks, thereby building resilience. In an emergency, a flexible and adaptable social protection system can generate alternatives to forced migration as a coping mechanism. Equally, the absence or insufficiency of a social protection system in the place of origin can aggravate vulnerability contexts that may influence if and how the migratory process will take place.


However, there is no conclusive evidence regarding the impact of social protection on migration. For example, a case study of cash transfers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania has shown that, on one hand, aid can directly (by providing subsidies to cover travel) or indirectly (by enabling education) influence an increase in immigration (Deshingkar, Wood & Béné, 2013). On the other hand, there were also cases in which the extra income actually allowed farmers to avoid migrating during the off-season and to diversify their investments, reducing vulnerability to shocks (Ibid.).


2. Migration as a form of informal social protection in times of shock or crisis: This is a complex and controversial perspective. One main problem is targeting: since the most vulnerable people after a shock are unlikely to have resources to migrate, it may not be an alternative that reaches those most in need. The costs of migration are high, and mobility is often a privilege of those above a socioeconomic threshold. Furthermore, migration itself involves risks, and conditions during transit and in the place of arrival may lead to aggravated vulnerabilities, especially if migration happens through irregular channels.


This is not to say that migration, even in crisis contexts, cannot be a positive coping mechanism. In the case of declining or disaster-prone regions, it may be counterproductive and inefficient to artificially maintain unsustainable livelihoods (Kuriakose et al., 2013). The establishment of development policies with a sedentary bias, without due attention to the context and to the autonomy of targeted groups, may wrongly interpret migration as an indication of failure and insist to keep people in lifestyles they would actually like to abandon (Bakewell, 2007).


Hallegatte et al. (2016) highlights the key role migration plays in adapting to shocks, increasing access to essential jobs and services, and reducing risk exposure. Therefore, the existence of policies seeking to stop migration, and the absence of regular channels that facilitate safe, regular and orderly migration, can be counterproductive and lead to increased vulnerabilities associated with irregular migration.


3. Social protection for migrants in countries of destination: A third perspective is related to the reception and integration policies in the country of destination. Crises may lead to large migration fluxes, generating increased needs for social protection in countries of destination, which may not be prepared for the enlarged demand. Furthermore, migration resulting from a crisis may involve aggravated vulnerability factors, requiring greater protection needs. In emergencies, facilitated access to social protection and scaling up from previously existing social protection systems may be a crucial factor for an effective response.


From this perspective, we can also think of the availability and accessibility of social protection for migrants. In the case of international movement, migrants’ regulatory status is commonly a crucial factor. Some programmes may exclude migrants in general or people with specific migratory status. In face of State´s limitations, many social protection programmes may be led by the civil society, such as non-governmental organizations.


Especially for those who migrate irregularly, protections may not exist and, even when they do, the fear of being expelled may inhibit access to governmental programmes of social protection, engendering increased vulnerability. Other material barriers for migrants’ access to social protection can be language, informational gaps, discrimination, cultural differences and insufficient documentation, among others.


4. Social protection for migrants living in countries in crisis: In this case, the migration does not result from the crisis, but migrants, regardless of their original reasons, were already present in the country when the shock occurred. As well as the previous case, migrants in these situations may have legal and/or material barriers to accessing humanitarian assistance and social protection. They can also be disproportionally affected by the shocks.


Due to lack of or limited social networks, there are increased difficulties in accessing informal coping mechanisms. Even when formal emergency management mechanisms are in place, they may not consider specific needs of migrant populations. Migrants could also find themselves with restricted mobility and unable to leave the country. They might also be unable to go back to their origin country, as in the case of refugees who have to seek asylum once again, becoming what is informally known as “double refugees”.


Implications: Developing Migrant sensitive strategies

Therefore, in contexts where migrants are among those affected – as it is the case of the former two perspectives – efforts must also include migrant-sensitive strategies, both in countries in crisis and in countries affected by the displacement impacts of external crisis. Over the last years, two relevant tools have been developed to address this matter:

1.     In 2012, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) produced the Migration Crisis Operational Framework (MCOF), combining the organization’s humanitarian and migration management services in 15 different sectors of assistance (IOM, 2012). The IOM also released, in 2016, the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflicts and Natural Disasters, in order to sensitise and promote the ability of relevant actors to assist and protect migrants in countries in crisis (IOM, 2016).

2.     Additionally, a recent global study on Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems (SRSP), led by the Oxford Policy Management (OPM), has developed a framework of preparedness and response that considers five key possibilities for shock-responsive adaptation: vertical expansion, horizontal expansion, piggybacking, shadow alignment and refocusing (OPM, 2017). The basis of the idea of shock-responsive social protection is that the prior existence of a social protection system prepared to increase its scale can guarantee a faster and more efficient response to emergencies.


Bridging the humanitarian and development nexus

Furthermore, when we are faced with growing numbers of forcibly displaced people due to protracted crisis situations, it is clear that these responses must go beyond short-term humanitarian assistance and include development plans leading to durable solutions. In this sense, developing crisis-responsive social protection systems is important in order to prepare and assure rapid response in emergency events.


It is also essential to help foster collaboration between humanitarian and social protection actors and to strengthen national social protection systems. Humanitarian and development policies must be thought of in a continuum, from immediate humanitarian assistance, to medium and long-term support for the rebuilding of affected people’s lives, and development promotion.



As we have seen, there are multiple possible interconnections between the issues of migration, social protection and crisis contexts that can be further explored. Some crisis-response programmes are already approaching these possibilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) cash transfers for Syrians refugees in Jordan, for instance, have a similar design to cash transfers delivered as long-term social protection programmes (Ulrichs et al,, 2017).


To ensure effectiveness, predictability and a secure transition to a medium to long-term development strategy, it is also crucial that governments take responsibility in building national social protection systems that are crisis responsive and migration sensitive.



Bakewell, O. (2007). Keeping Them in Their Place: the ambivalent relationship between development and migration in Africa, International Migration Institute (IMI) Working Papers, University of Oxford, n. 8.

Deshingkar, P., Wood, R. G. and Béné, C. (2013) Adaptive Social Protection and Migration: The Case of Cash Transfers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, Migrating out of Poverty – Research Programme Consortium.

Hallegatte, S., Bangalore, et al. (2016). Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, Climate Change and Development Series, World Bank Group.

IOM (2016). Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster, International Organization for Migration. Accessible:

IOM (2012). IOM Migration Crisis Operational Framework. Accessible:

IOM. Facilitation of Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. Global Compact Thematic Paper | Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. Accessible:

Kuriakose, A. T. et al. (2013). Climate-Responsive Social Protection, Development Policy Review, 31 (S2): 019-034.

Oxford Policy Management (2017). Shock-Responsive Social Protection Systems (SRSP). Accessible:

Ulrichs, M., Hagen-Zanker, J. and Holmes, R. (2017). Cash transfers for refugees: An opportunity to bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and social protection, Overseas Development Institute.


Temas relacionados con Protección Social: 
  • Informal social protection
  • Social protection systems
  • Targeting
Áreas transversales: 
  • Disasters and crisis
    • Humanitarian crisis
  • MDGs/SDGs
  • Resilience
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's