Disasters – Mobility – Communications: Exploring the Links

Date: May 16 - 17, 2011

Convenors: Oliver Bakewell (Oxford), Katharina Inhetveen (München), Andreas Pott (Osnabrück)

Disasters are commonly associated with an increase in mobility. Those directly affected by the disaster are confronted with decisions about whether to stay or to leave the disaster site. Disaster related decision-making processes are far more complex than the seemingly self-evident, urge to ‘run away’. Also disasters usually stimulate socio-political responses from humanitarian actors and thus trigger movement towards the disaster site. A wide range of actors including government departments, aid agencies, donors and media organizations face decisions about how to respond to the disaster. Responses include goals and strategies concerned with the mobility of those affected. Therefore disasters almost inevitably entail making mobility decisions. However, these decisions not only deal with enabling movement: efforts to manage disaster-related mobility typically involve processes of immobilization as well. Mobilization and immobilization in the wake of disasters can be considered as two aspects of the socio-political processes of organizing and ordering mobility. Making decisions about mobility requires different actors to exchange information across space. Those directly affected by the disaster need to rapidly identify their options for moving and to mobilize the necessary resources. Information about peoples’ mobility in turn is an essential ingredient for the decision-making of humanitarian actors. Part of their response is likely to involve communication strategies to control mobility—to persuade people to leave or go to particular places.

While commonly practitioners deal with such issues the workshop ‘Disasters—Mobility—Communications: Exploring the Links’ provided a platform for perspectives from various academic disciplines and case studies from different global regions. As part of a series of events the two-day workshop was hosted by the ZiF research group ‘Communicating Disaster’. Three sessions covered thematically-related issue-areas. Session I addressed interpretations of disaster-related mobility from the affected people’s perspective. Session II subsequently turned to interpretations of disaster-related mobility by responding agencies. In session III interfaces between different interpretive frames were discussed. The individual presentations of each session were followed by plenary discussions, which evolved around three guiding questions:
1) Constructions of Mobility
There are many ways to describe movement. These are highly context-dependent and may relate to the distance across which people move as well as the urgency underlying their mobility. Notions like ‘running’ or ‘flight’ do not refer to actual distances, but rather convey a sense of the emotional state in which people move. While refugees’ own interpretations of movement tend to be grounded in local knowledge, agencies are likely to apply a more administrative perspective to mobility. Ways of linking disasters and mobility therefore strongly depend on the perspective taken. External observers may be inclined to draw linear connections between disasters and mobility, whereas individual perspectives are often more complex. The quality of communication and information therefore heavily depends on the respective source.
2) Interplay between those affected by a disaster and responding agencies
Disasters do not only involve those who are most directly affected, but usually also trigger reactions from a variety of (international) aid actors. Who is involved very much depends on the nature of the respective disaster. Despite their generally supportive agenda aid agencies can play ambivalent roles in the context of disasters. In some situations, humanitarian assistance in fact turns into a means of governance. However, the capacities of aid agencies in the context of disasters are by far not all encompassing. The example of border closures, which leave humanitarian agencies with little capacities to impact on state policies, illustrates this. While mobility and humanitarian protection are inherently connected, power balances between state actors and aid agencies as well as between aid agencies and those affected are often very uneven.
3) Outcome of constructions of mobility and interaction
Constructions of mobility are contingent on the type of disaster forcing people to move. Different understandings of space come into play here too. Framing mobility and mobility-related decision-making processes are part of a broader communication story which involves different actors. Accordingly degrees of freedom in mobility-related decision-making vary considerably. Many disasters create humanitarian spaces, which are likely to turn into crossroads of different communication channels. Agencies address not only the needs of those affected by the disaster but also perform for an international audience and donors more specifically. Sometimes it is unclear who the actual target group of humanitarian interventions is. Thus disasters set the scene for communication on various levels, which is based on different underlying intentions and capacities to act.

Exploring the links between disasters, mobility and communication from a researcher’s perspective inevitably brings up ethical questions. Why are we doing this, and what is the purpose of our research? What forms of understanding do we hope to gain and what do we envisage in terms of applicability? Research can, however, help to understand mobility. Researchers should therefore adopt an open-minded approach and not restrict their focus to questions of applicability and application. Fragen geht ein zweitägiger Workshop (16. – 17. Mai 2011) nach, der im Rahmen der ZiF-Forschungsgruppe Communicating Disaster organisiert wird. Der Workshop folgt der Annahme, dass kommunikative Prozesse eine zentrale Rolle für die Strukturierung und Umsetzung der mit Katastrophen verknüpften Mobilitätsentscheidungen spielen. Unter dieser Annahme fokussieren internationale Experten aus verschiedenen Disziplinen sowohl die Perspektiven der Bewohner der von Katastrophen betroffenen Gebiete als auch die einflussreichen Interpretationen der vielfältigen sozio-politischen Akteure und Organisationen, die auf Katastrophen mit Evakuierungs-, Lager-, Umsiedlungs-, Rückführ- oder anderen Hilfs- und Kontrollmaßnahmen reagieren. Die zur Diskussion gestellten Beispiele reichen von Flutkatastrophen in Asien über Anstrengungen zur Repatriierung von Kriegsflüchtlingen in Afrika bis zur Konstruktion des entscheidungsstarken Helden in Katastrophenfilmen.


Ruth Ayaß (Klagenfurt), Philipp Balcke (Freiburg i.Br.), Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld), Monika Büscher (Lancaster), Humaira Daniel (Bonn), Carolin Fischer (Oxford UK), Heike Greschke (Bielefeld), Diana Griesinger (Heidelberg), Michael Guggenheim (London), Stephan Habscheid (Siegen), Sarah Hitzler (Bielefeld), Wolfgang Hochbruck (Freiburg i.Br.), Bram J. Hansen (Wageningen), Stefan Kaufmann (Freiburg i.Br.), Anna Konik (Berlin), Judith Kröll (Wien), Peter Ladkin (Bielefeld), Katy Long (Oxford UK), Stephen Mosley (Leeds), Christian Meyer (Bielefeld), Frank Oberzaucher (Bielefeld), Peter Parkinson (Bielefeld), Gerhard Ramsebner (Wien), Marén Schorch (Bielefeld), Neysa Jacqueline Setiadi (Bonn), Martin Sökefeld (München), Gunnar Stevens (Siegen), Julia Tischler (Bielefeld), Hendrik Volmer (Bielefeld), Helena Zemp (Zürich)

For further questions, please contact the research group assistants:

Sarah Hitzler / Marén Schorch
Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)

Tel.: +49 (0)521 106-2776

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