Insult to Injury: Disaster Displacement, Migrant Threat Perception, and Conflict in Host Communities

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Michael Locke


Environmental disasters are a concern of homeland security largely in terms of the planning, mitigation, and resilience aspects for the communities directly hit. A more complex problem is the longer-term disruption to the lives of people who are unable to remain in their home communities and relocate elsewhere in the country, and particularly the frictions that occur with the residents of the “receiving communities” where they resettle. This phenomenon is recognized by the U.S. government and international organizations as internal displacement, although the term internally displaced persons (IDPs) has traditionally only been applied to the status of large groups in less-developed countries. Unlike refugee crises, which trigger the protections of international law, IDP flows present a different challenge, as they remain the responsibility of their home country.

Displacement has been occurring with increasing frequency both in the United States and around the world, due both to the effects of climate change on weather patterns and to the ongoing propensity of people to settle more densely in disaster-prone areas. American communities are not immune from the risks of poorly managed displacement, including violent conflict, increases in poverty, a weakened social contract and trust in institutions, and an erosion of the citizen’s right to internal freedom of movement; indeed, all these markers are documented in previous domestic migrations. States and cities have enacted policies barring the entry of indigent people or disenfranchising recent arrivals; communities have isolated evacuees through housing and employment discrimination; at times, violent conflict has erupted between locals and newcomers. This thesis seeks to help mitigate these risks by presenting a more holistic understanding of the secondary effects of disasters on the displaced and the communities that receive them.

Three elements of this dynamic are key to putting this thesis in context. First, who is at issue, or how people come to identify and perceive relationships between ingroups and outgroups. Second, what is at stake, or why some situational factors like competition for resources and fear of disruptions to public health and safety can lead to negative outcomes between host communities and newcomers. Third, how the stakes are manipulated may influence the outcome, as certain actors in the community may provoke or promote negative responses to newcomers to leverage the situation for their own benefit.

The literature on each of these topics presents three lenses that can respectively be used to answer these who-what-how questions. Social identity theory (SIT) posits at its base that people identify with certain “ingroups” in contrast to outgroups that may jockey with them for resources, favors, or power.[1] These identities are not fixed but rather positional with respect to external conditions and internal status judgments. Sociofunctional analysis looks at intergroup relations between settled and migrant communities in terms of an emotional response to the circumstances of their interaction; competition induces anger and a combative response, threats to health and safety induce fear and an avoidance response, and appeals to the community’s moral obligations induce pity and a prosocial response.[2] Moral panic explores the ways in which some element of the community may exploit migrant outgroups by deliberately yoking them to a fear or frustration of the community overall.[3]

I applied these three lenses to three American environmental disasters that involved large numbers of people enduring long-term displacement from their homes.

  1. The southwestern U.S. Dust Bowl (drought, windstorms) of the 1930s, in which slow-onset conditions allowed residents to choose both when they depart and where they would go.
  2. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast (cyclone, flooding) in 2005, a sudden large-footprint event for which a sizeable portion of the evacuees were forced to relocate and were not given a choice about their immediate destinations.
  3. The California wildfires of 2017–2018, a sudden small-footprint event for which most survivors stayed near the site of their sending communities.

In each of these events, there was evidence of resource competition and of concerns for health and safety; what differed was the outgroup status of the displaced and the attempts to manipulate the situation to scapegoat the migrants. After synthesizing the outcomes of these events, I created a disaster-displacement model to describe the pathway from event to outcome in two main stages: an overall disaster event and a response specific to each host community.

In addition to the “where” of each host community, the “who” and “what” are largely decided at the time of the disaster event; geography, socioeconomic status, and infrastructure quality determine which groups will have to move and where they can go. The mix of factors is distinct for each community that evacuees may go to, but the differences between the migrants and their host community will mark the newcomers as outsiders of especial importance. A sudden change in local demographics that coincides with general uncertainty over shared resources or community well-being can exacerbate the tensions around all manner of local issues.

The “how” is the primary level of control through which powerful political or media voices can further amplify or mitigate outcomes, by setting the tone for local-newcomer interactions and policies. If community leaders do nothing or engage in behavior that encourages negative-framing or creates a moral panic, then conflict, segregation, and other negative outcomes are more likely. Legitimate challenges can be weaponized into targeted resentment, stigmatizing survivors as a burden or danger to the community long-term.

Being entirely qualitative, this model cannot predict what combination of factors will lead to a particular outcome. What it does is create a baseline for understanding how different communities can react differently to a similar cohort of evacuees and place those reactions in context. At base, the proposal here is that there are two very different schemata for how people perceive nonimmigrant newcomers. In one, the national “umbrella” citizenship takes precedence and these fellow Americans are recognized as enjoying their right to domestic freedom of movement. In the other, local citizenship takes precedence and the host community sees newcomers something akin to domestic refugees, an outgroup to be dealt with reluctantly at best or chased away if deemed necessary. The negative consequences of this latter view indicate that the United States would be prudent to explore creating an IDP policy and minimize the likelihood that the conditions of post-disaster displacement end up adding insult to injury.



[1] Michael A. Hogg, “Social Identity Theory,” in Understanding Peace and Conflict through Social Identity Theory: Contemporary Global Perspectives, ed. Shelley McKeown, Reeshma Haji, and Neil Ferguson, Peace Psychology Book Series (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016), 7.

[2] Catherine A. Cottrell and Steven L. Neuberg, “Different Emotional Reactions to Different Groups: A Sociofunctional Threat-Based Approach to ‘Prejudice,’” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, no. 5 (2005): 770–89.

[3] Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (Singapore: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 2-3.

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