Protecting Migrants in Dire Humanitarian Situations

Published: 20 November 2012

GFMD Civil Society Days 2012 - Theme 3: Operationalizing the Protection of Migrants and their Families. (Port Louis, Mauritius)

Working Session 3.B: Protecting Migrants in Dire Humanitarian Situations
Delivered by Sue Le Mesurier, Manager Migration Unit, IFRC

20 November 2012

Dear Mr Chair, members of the panel, distinguished Friends of the Forum and Civil Society participants.
Red Cross and Red Crescent member Societies provide unconditional support consistent with our Fundamental Principles of humanity, independence, impartiality and neutrality – meaning we have a shared duty to assist and protect persons in distress, irrespective of their nationality, administrative or legal status, and for as long as they will need us. We provide unconditional support because the duty to humanity is above all other considerations and because the humanity of a person is not dependent upon which borders he or she crosses.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on behalf of our global network of 187 National Societies, are often at the forefront of humanitarian action related to migration. We re-state our commitment to working with GFMD members, Civil Society and other actors to address the pressing protection needs of migrants in dire humanitarian circumstances.

The international community is currently facing a challenging situation with a range of overlapping and complex migration contexts. During the current humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Lebanese Red Cross, Jordanian Red Crescent, Turkish Red Crescent, Iraqi Red Crescent, Kuwaiti Red Crescent and other National Societies are providing protection and assistance such as emergency first aid, food, shelter, psychological support, restoring family linkages and tracing services to tens of thousands of people faced with little choice but to leave their homes and seek safety across borders.

Today‟s tendency by Governments, the UN and other actors towards defining categories of migrants effectively avoids the necessity to address protection and vulnerability challenges, and often results in snap shot humanitarianism‟, and an over-focus on migrants trapped temporarily or otherwise in a fixed physical setting, at a definite and limited moment and place.

As we are aware dire humanitarian situations can arise for migrants along the vast and diffuse migratory trails that cover the globe, which are characterized by a high degree of human suffering and urgent needs that require the intervention of humanitarian actors such as the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement in partnership with Governments and others.

However, if interventions are undertaken in isolation, then the danger is one of „divisive humanitarianism‟ whereby one divides migrants expediently into categories, and only then are their humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities considered. However, the status and condition of migrants are often evolving during the course of their migratory journey. A migrant may initially leave voluntarily, however be forced to use a smuggling route to flee, become kidnapped during his or her journey, caught up in a trafficking network, and exploited both in transit and on arrival. Humanitarian action must I assert seek to engage along the migratory trails, address cumulative vulnerabilities and individual migratory protection needs.

A descriptive rather than a categorical approach was the basis for the development of the International Federation Policy on Migration in 2009.

“In order to capture the full extent of humanitarian concerns related to migration, our description of migrants is deliberately broad: Migrants are persons who leave or flee their habitual residence to go to new places ..... to seek opportunities or safer and better prospects. Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, but most of the time a combination of choices and constraints are involved.

Thus, our policy includes, among others, labour migrants, stateless migrants, and migrants deemed irregular by public authorities. It also concerns refugees and asylum seekers, notwithstanding the fact that they constitute a special category under international law.”

Up to this point there might have been a reasonable level of comfort with the suggestion that categories should not dictate humanitarian action in the face of human needs and vulnerabilities, but that, instead, a flexible non-categorical approach should be the aim. However, this quotation raises again the problem of “who is doing what?”, and the diverse legal-technical, and institutional mandates of the various actors involved.

Last month IFRC launched its flagship publication, the World Disasters Report, which highlights the plight of forced migrants. In 2011 there were over 70 million people, or more than one in every 100 of the world‟s citizens, displaced by conflict, political upheaval, violence, disasters and other drivers such as climate change and environmental degradation. Tragically the number of people forcibly displaced is increasing as the phenomena of migration becomes more complex.

Today, more than 20 million people are trapped in a state of “protracted displacement” – living in camps or in unplanned and informal parts of cities, typically unable to work, unable to access even basic social services and often with little access to international protection.

Protection is an area of particular concern to the RCRC Movement. How can we keep migrants safe both during their often perilous journeys away from their home countries and in the host communities where they come to live? We have all heard the terrible stories of migrants fleeing the turmoil in North Africa often in unseaworthy boats. Protection, and upholding the dignity and safety of all migrants, especially at international borders must be a key element of any response to addressing the protection needs of migrants in dire circumstances. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has thereby called upon States in line with relevant international law and national legislation, to grant migrants appropriate international protection and to ensure their access to essential life saving humanitarian services.

To address these challenging migration issues and find durable solutions, requires harmonised actions and policies at the international level. Migration, by definition, does not know any frontiers; its causes are many, and its potential solutions often politically fraught. Despite this, one principle is clear; every vulnerable person needs access to humanitarian organisations, and humanitarian organisations always need to be able to have access to vulnerable persons. This basic requirement is essential.

If the humanitarian dimensions concern so many variants in individual situations, predicaments and outlooks – can we renounce categorizing? Is disaggregation the only path some would argue towards an organized, targeted, systematic humanitarian and governmental response?

The answer may be, as suggested before, where the humanitarian and protection function – including inter-governmental organizations with their respective mandates – must set a counterpoint where individual needs and vulnerabilities, are prioritised before the application of categories and status.
In fact, this is precisely what the 30th and the 31st International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, including all governments participating, meant when expressing its concern about migrants irrespective of their legal status.

And indeed, in order to avoid confusion regarding the protection of migrants in dire situations, it may well be a worthy challenge for the participants of this Forum to agree on a joint statement on shared humanitarian responsibility and protection that (re)affirms explicitly a humanitarian, non-categorical priority on behalf of vulnerable migrants in dire circumstances.