I have watched the video feeds from Japan all day as I worked, images of flooding, devastation, and the all too human impacts of this major disaster. I have a number of friends on expatriate assignments in Japan, as well as colleagues working at clinics, colleges, and businesses throughout the country. Thankfully, many of them have posted updates on Facebook or in broadcast e-mails to say that they are okay, certainly shaken, but uninjured and sheltered.
Many of the expats were over for assignments to transfer or develop technology headed to new biotechnology or medical device applications. They certainly won’t be able to continue that work. Although the International Human Resource Management (IHRM) literature doesn’t offer statistics, I expect companies to bring them home: both the risks of remaining and the disruption to their assignments are too great to continue.
Expats with spouses and partners, on the other hand, have every reason to remain. There are lives and possessions to be recovered, extended families to be sheltered and supported, and I can’t imagine that expats would not work to sort things unless the damage was so great that repatriation was the only route to safety.
Intermediate cases of independent expats with roots and businesses but no dependencies are more difficult to judge. Is the help that an expat might provide outweighed by their burden on scarce resources? Do language and cultural gaps keep them from participating effectively in community responses? Are they outsiders or insiders in times of disaster?
I think that unless there is a clear benefit and connection, then an expat’s responsibility is to leave once their neighborhood situation has stabilized and help has begun to arrive.
There will be cleanup and rebuilding to be done, and there’s no question that I would feel loyalty to friends and colleagues and want to help where I could. But unless I could offer unique skills or resources I suspect that I would be more burden than a help, no matter how well intentioned.
It’s a really tricky question and the answer is doubtless situational. But, watching the images flow in from Japan, I had to wonder how I would cope, where I could help, and whether I should leave.
And please contribute to one of the disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross if you have resources to spare.