Confusion exists over three terms appearing in daily news headlines – migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Refugees are persons who leave their country due to unsafe, uncertain conditions, while IDPs move to another part of their country for similar reasons.
Migrants are a broader category of people, describing anyone who moves to another country.
Migrants in crisis often “fall through the cracks” in humanitarian aid efforts, said Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies for International Organization for Migration.
Abdiker spoke during a recent live, online briefing and consultation in which I participated. It was organized by Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), and involved 175 participants from 24 countries.
Migrants in crisis situations face unique challenges because they are living outside of their country of origin and lack the family and community support they might otherwise have had, Abdiker said.
As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses during crises and are often overlooked in humanitarian aid efforts that tend to focus on refugees and IDPs.
Both Abdiker and the other speaker, John Bingham, head of policy for the International Catholic Migration Commission, stressed that a lack of human rights protections for migrants before crises contribute to greater chances for abuse and migrant vulnerability during crises.
There is a “direct correlation between weak human rights protections before a crisis and the level of vulnerability and exposure of migrants to abuse during a crisis,” Abdiker said.
“Access to rights makes the difference on vulnerability,” Bingham said. “If [migrants] don’t have rights in ordinary times, their situation is categorically worse in crisis times.”
Even migrants who are able to return home face challenges of reintegration and the potentially unstable conditions in their homeland that contributed to their earlier migration.
Returning home “does not come without consequences,” Abdiker said, as some migrants have lived in another country for decades and have little, if any, connection to or support within their homeland.
In addition, returning to their country of origin means leaving their job, income, property and other responsibilities, creating shame in returning empty-handed and, sometimes, leaving them to face a bleak job market or other difficult circumstances.
To address the specific hardships and vulnerabilities of migrants in crisis, Abdiker emphasized the need for coordination between humanitarian aid organizations and all levels of government. Yet the infrastructure to do so doesn’t exist currently.
Abdiker and Bingham both urged the establishment of internationally recognized processes for providing aid to migrants in crisis, similar to the guidelines that exist for refugees and IDPs, rather than the current ad hoc approach.
Otherwise, the unique challenges migrants face will remain unaddressed.
In developing these standards and protocols, migrants must be involved in the discussions, Bingham said, quoting the adage, “no talk about us without us.”
Recognizing the ability and resourcefulness of migrants is essential in addressing these concerns, he added, stressing that they are “not vulnerable all the time,” they are “not just victims, not just helpless.”
International PHAP executive director Angharad Laing moderated the event and asked Abdiker and Bingham a few questions posed by the global participants in the closing minutes.
One question requested an evaluation of the current European Union (EU) response to the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.
Abdiker called it a “complicated situation” and said the response was far from perfect.
Bingham noted that a “range of responses” was needed to address the specific circumstances and “particular vulnerabilities” of those risking their lives to reach the EU (refugees, migrants, trafficking victims and so on).
While noting that some progress had been made in EU migration discussions, Bingham bemoaned a shift in sentiment from “search and rescue” to “search and destroy” with regard to trafficking boats.
He also said, “Whatever there is [unique] in the Mediterranean … this is a global challenge. And the failure to react is what is the crisis and the story, not the movement of people.”
A recording of the live event is available here.