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Beyond borders


As frontiers close and migration is increasingly criminalized, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement strives for a ‘response without distinction’ to legal status and relief along the perilous path

“I am a woman like all women with dreams that I would like to realize,” says Rougui, a 20-year-old Guinean. “I was a student and I’ve left everything behind me. I left my two children — my 3-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old boy.”

Now in Morocco, Rougui left her village in Guinea and travelled through Mali, Senegal and Mauritania before finally settling in the city of Oujda, on Morocco’s eastern border with Algeria, where she is still searching for work, trying to learn the language and fit in.

“My preparations for the voyage were made from one day to the next,” she says. “It’s not easy to survive. I still don’t have work, so I don’t have money to feed myself. There’s also the problem of communication. I don’t understand anyone and there’s no one to talk to.”

In today’s increasingly mobile world, Rougui’s story is the same as millions of others, as more and more people around the world flee poverty, war, drought or famine in search of a better life. Often paying exorbitant sums to take perilous routes, they face detention or live for years in legal limbo. They may also face exclusion and discrimination in their new communities while many are forcibly repatriated or just sent back across the nearest border.

The migrants’ stories defy the common perceptions held in many destination countries, where the migration issue is often described by the media as a one-time episode, usually at a border — a boat picked up by the Italian coastguard, migrants scrambling to dry land on the Canary Islands, a freight wagon full of farm workers suffocating in the hot Texas sun.

But for the migrants themselves, these episodes are just one in a string along an arduous route that often seems without end. The journey of Kouamé Abaline, for example, began five years ago when she fled war in her native Côte d’Ivoire at the age of 15, spending two years in Mali, then three in Mauritania before settling in Morocco. “I didn’t have any stability or proper care in my country,” she says of her adolescent years. “My mother died during the war and my brothers and sisters had all gone to Mali.”

Now, in the post-9/11 security-driven political environment, the 2008 financial meltdown has made the migrant’s journey more dangerous than ever. “Because of public opinion and the financial crisis, destination states have become stricter and stricter,” says Jean-Christophe Sandoz, a migration specialist for the ICRC. “This has not diminished the number of migrants who try to make their way to richer countries. Rather it has pushed them to take greater risks.”

In West Africa, migrants taking boats to the Canary Islands go much further out to sea to avoid the marine patrols of Frontex, a security force set up to protect the external borders of the European Union.

“People are also taking more and more dangerous routes through the desert,” Sandoz adds. In the small, remote town of Tin Zaouatène, for example, near Mali’s northern border with Algeria, nearly 1,000, often highly distressed migrants from various West African countries pass through every month, some heading north, others sent back from Algeria. The Mali Red Cross and the ICRC assist the stranded voyagers with medical care, shelter, food, transportation from insecure border areas, or a phone call home.

New destinations

These stories also belie the myth — often held in Europe and the United States — that migration is only an issue of south-to-north. In fact, migration from southern countries to higher-income northern countries only accounts for one-third of the global migration picture.

The Middle East and Gulf states offer good examples of south-to-south migration. Each year in Yemen, the bodies of migrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea wash up on the shores of the Gulf of Aden. They are often migrants whose overloaded boats capsized or were attacked by pirates. In some cases, they were pushed overboard when coastguard ships intercepted the smugglers. The migrants are fleeing warfare or looking for work on the Arabian Peninsula, a destination point for workers from West Africa to the Philippines.

In the south Pacific, Australia attracts migrants from as far away as Afghanistan, Burundi, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. The migrants’ journeys may take years and the travellers may end up staying in any of a dozen countries along the way. Many are granted refugee status while in camps abroad. Others who survive an arduous sea voyage might be placed in an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, a territory of Australia located in the Indian Ocean south of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, nations that were traditionally transit countries are increasingly becoming destination countries. Heightened enforcement and fear of migration in Europe, the United States and Australia mean more migrants are staying longer in countries such as Mexico, Mali, Morocco or Indonesia.

For Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the challenge is how to assist migrants while at the same time neither alienating host communities nor becoming (or being perceived by migrating groups as) agents of the state during forced deportation or detention.

National Societies offer medical services, food and shelter assistance, various protection services in detention settings, and help with navigating the new societies in which they live.

The Spanish Red Cross, for example, recently began providing protection, health and psychosocial support in an administrative detention facility in Madrid, and (along with various partners) it helps operate 14 accommodation centres that provide shelter for newly arrived migrants for up to six months. The Spanish Red Cross also has a variety of programmes to address xenophobia, help orient migrants in their new society and provide relief among the growing number of settlements created by unemployed agricultural workers.

In North Africa, the focus has also been on helping migrant communities cope with a wide range of hardships: unemployment, poverty, discrimination and a certain invisibility within their adopted societies.

“Migration in many North African countries has been perceived only under the framework of security,” says Ann Leclerc, head of the IFRC’s North Africa region office. “Civil society has an unclear role in dealing with migration and they (including the Red Cross Red Crescent) are looking at clarifying their role with local authorities to deliver effective services focusing on the vulnerability resulting from migration.”

Along with offering concrete services — transport, orientation, courses, community centres — the Moroccan Red Crescent and the Tunisian Red Crescent launched a campaign (called Live our humanity. It’s our move.) with IFRC support and funded by the European Union, to raise awareness and change mindsets towards the situation of migrants among host communities.

A two-year study, conducted by the Association for Moroccan Migration Studies and Research, on behalf of the campaign, found that sub-Saharan migrants feel marginalized by a Moroccan society they feel is unwelcoming to migrants. By contrast, 86 per cent of Moroccans who live in contact with migrants feel that there is no real racism toward sub-Saharan migrants.

The stories of Rougui and Kouamé are just one part of the effort to bridge cultural gaps. Their stories, along with about a dozen others, have been put into a recipe book of Moroccan and West African cuisine. The book coincides with a community kitchen project that has Moroccan and migrant woman cooking, sharing recipes and breaking bread together. In the next two years, the Live our humanity campaign is expected to expand into Libya and Algeria.

Regional approach

But the story doesn’t stop there. Several European and West and North African National Societies, along with the ICRC and the IFRC, are hoping to move towards a more systemic regional approach, creating bilateral and regional cooperation and knowledge-sharing around an issue that transcends national borders.

That was one goal of a regional meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in May, that brought together National Societies from West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Mali, Niger and Senegal), North Africa (Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) and Europe (Belgium, France and Spain). Already confronted with poverty, conflict, desertification, drought and disease, National Societies in the region are doing more to deal with a growing migration problem. The challenges are particularly acute in places such as Tin Zaouatène, where migrants are often stranded in the middle of the desert in a highly insecure environment.

“There is no sign that these expulsions at the Algerian border are going to stop anytime soon,” says Mamadou Traoré of the Mali Red Cross. “Hence the need to find a response adapted to the particular needs of migrants in this hostile zone.”

National Societies, the IFRC and the ICRC are providing a range of emergency services — from basic first aid to restoring family links — but it’s not enough. In the town of Rosso, Senegal, near the border with Mauritania, the Senegalese and Spanish Red Cross work together to provide basic assistance to migrants expelled across the border from Mauritania. “The actions are carried out on an emergency basis because the migrants received there never stay more than four or five hours, essentially to satisfy their basic needs,” says Ibrahima Fall of the Senegalese Red Cross.

These are just a few of the responses. Confronted with a lack of funding and a host of other issues to tackle, however, National Societies in the region face a long road before a concerted, sustainable regional approach can be scaled up.

A delicate line

Another key theme of the Dakar meeting was the delicate line that National Societies must walk to carry out their mandate impartially to assist migrants in distress, regardless of their legal status, while (in some cases) exercising their role as auxiliaries to state authorities.

Sometimes, assistance is requested by states during the expulsion of migrants, raising a difficult ethical and political choice. In June 2010, the IFRC released an advisory note counselling that “to avoid being perceived as supporting coercive action, National Societies should as a rule, refrain from providing assistance during removal operations”.

“If National Societies were to be part of policies to promote or encourage return,” the note read, “they would risk losing credibility and trust with migrant communities and end up incapable of assisting and protecting those in need. Moreover, in countries of return, the image of the [Red Cross Red Crescent] could be negatively affected.”

Only one European National Society offers relief on flights for forcible repatriations and it is under pressure from other National Societies to stop. But where should National Societies draw the line? What about voluntary return? European nations are now pushing this notion, in which migrants receive assistance and funds if they agree to go back to their country of origin. Some European National Societies assist in this process or feel pressure to do so.

They should resist, says Catherine Stubbes, head of tracing and migration services for the Belgian Red Cross. “If you’re speaking with a migrant you have to talk about all the options: voluntary return, asylum, irregular status,” she says. “We should be working on the empowerment of migrants. We want them to make the decision by themselves. We should not try to influence them.”

‘Irrespective of status’

The IFRC’s Global Policy on Migration calls for “an integrated and impartial approach, combining immediate action for migrants in urgent need with longer-term assistance and empowerment. It is therefore important that National Societies be permitted to work with all migrants, without discrimination and irrespective of their status.”

It’s a tricky balance, especially since many states have enacted laws to discourage Samaritans from helping irregular migrants — even requiring them to report irregular migrants to authorities. The ICRC’s Sandoz would like to see more countries follow the lead of Norway, which recently enacted regulations that allow humanitarians to help irregular migrants without fear of prosecution.

And there’s always the court of public opinion, which in an election year, often breeds misinformation. “We recently did a survey of public opinion which indicated that the public is much more understanding and sympathetic towards the plight of refugees and asylum seekers than previously thought,” says Steve Francis, National Manager Movement Relations and Advocacy for the Australian Red Cross.

Still, there are many misconceptions about migrants, he said. “We’re intending to undertake a slow-build public education initiative over the years to raise awareness with the public about the true nature of the migration journey and to tackle discrimination and prejudice.”

To muddy the waters further, there is no clear, universally accepted legal definition of what a migrant is. There’s a tendency among human rights and humanitarian agencies — based on a long tradition of refugee and asylum law — to group migrants into categories. Most notably, between those who are ‘forced’ to migrate by natural disaster, conflict or persecution and those who are moving by ‘choice’.

Increasingly, these distinctions are insufficient and inadequate to guide our humanitarian response, says Thomas Linde, special representative for migration at the IFRC, who argues for an “inclusive approach” in which “the needs and vulnerabilities of the migrants should prevail over the legal (or other) category to which they belong”

Malcolm Lucard is the editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.

 The many faces
of migration

A man weeps after arriving in Spain’s Canary Islands.
©REUTERS/Borja Suarez, courtesy






Iranian migrants look out from behind bars at an immigration detention house in Indonesia’s East Java province in March.
©REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas, courtesy






One of 65 migrants who came by fishing boat to the Spanish island of Tenerife.
REUTERS/Santiago Ferrero, courtesy






A migrant worker looks on from behind a glass door as she waits for her documents to be processed in Jakarta, Indonesia.
©REUTERS/Beawiharta, courtesy







“Because of public
opinion and the
financial crisis,
destination states
have become stricter
and stricter. This has
not diminished the
number of migrants
who try to make
their way to richer
countries. Rather it
has pushed them to
take greater risks.”

, a migration
specialist for the ICRC








A man walks near the border between Morocco and Algeria near Oujda.
©REUTERS/Rafael Marchante, courtesy







“If you’re speaking
with a migrant you
have to talk about
all the options.
We want them to
make the decision
by themselves. We
should not try to
influence them.”

Catherine Stubbes,
head of tracing and
migration services
for the Belgian
Red Cross







Some 48 nautical miles off Malta, 115 migrants were picked up last year by the Maltese armed forces when their boat ran into trouble on its way to Europe from Africa.
©REUTERS/Ho New, courtesy







“The needs and
vulnerabilities of
the migrants should
prevail over the
legal (or other )
category to which
they belong.”

Thomas Linde,
special representative
for migration at the IFRC








A migrant worker looks on as other workers from Myanmar sleep under the picture of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej in a crowded minority settlement near Bangkok.
©REUTERS/Damir Sagolj, courtesy









Hugo Leonel
©Catherine Godoy, ICRC


Jose Hernandez, 24, poses with a picture of himself taken in El Progreso before his accident. A migrant worker on his way to the U.S., Hernandez was run over by a train in Mexico in 2004. He lost his right arm and leg, as well as three fingers on his left hand.
©REUTERS/Edgard Garrido, courtesy

The train that runs over dreams

Hugo Leonel was 15 and already working on his own when he decided to leave Guatemala for better opportunities in Mexico. In order to avoid an immigration checkpoint, Leonel and his travel companions needed to board a moving train — commonly called ‘the train of death’.

After walking all day to find the train, the young men ran to catch it. “I was the last one,” Hugo says. “The others were far ahead. I grabbed the lower section of a ladder; the train was dragging me. My body was hanging from the train.

“I just prayed to God to have mercy on my soul if I was going to die. Then I just felt a strong pull that threw me to the ground.

“I did not feel what had happened to me. I lay next to the tracks. I could barely see the train. I stood up and when I tried to walk,
I fell to the ground again. That’s when I realized the train had run over me. I looked down and my foot was smashed.”

Those who made it onto the train informed people at the next town of the accident and immigration officials took Leonel to a nearby hospital, where he was treated and taken to a shelter. Two years later, on leaving the shelter, he had to look for both a job and a new prosthesis because, according to Carlos Delgado, a specialist with the ICRC’s Special Fund for the Disabled, Leonel had outgrown his earlier prosthesis.

Since then, he has worked in agriculture, construction and cleaning a local cemetery. “Without it I cannot get around,” he says. “If you are missing anything, you cannot get a job. With my prosthesis, it’s more possible because people see you complete.”

One of a few such stories with a happy ending, Leonel’s story illustrates a chronic problem in Guatemala, where some 1.5 million people live with some kind of disability and, as a result, many of them live in extreme poverty.

The ICRC and the Special Fund for the Disabled have been active in the field of physical rehabilitation in Latin America since the 1980s and are well aware of the plight of migrant train victims, who are becoming increasingly common in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
Catherine Godoy, ICRC



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