Migrants risk their lives for a better future

Every day, hundreds of people travel thousands of kilometres across land or sea in search of a brighter future. 18 December is International Migrants Day. Pierre Gentile, head of the ICRC's Protection Division, discusses the challenges that migrants face, and what the ICRC is doing to help them.

Many migrants endure great hardship on their journeys. Can you describe some of the challenges they face?

Migration is a complex phenomenon that concerns more than 230 million people around the world. The causes are often a mix of "push" and "pull" factors. People may be fleeing an armed conflict, persecution or poverty, or they may be looking for better economic opportunities. Whatever their needs or situations, many face the same difficulties along the routes.

Many irregular migrants manage to reach their destinations safely and integrate into their new communities, but others face severe hardships that affect their physical well-being and mental health, and that of their families. Many pass through areas subject to conflict or other violence, and may be trapped in hostile environments without proper documentation and with no means of continuing their journeys. They often suffer the consequences of organized violence and may fall victim to kidnapping, extortion or sexual violence.

Some lose all means of contacting their families, in particular when they are detained.

Unfortunately, thousands of migrants die or disappear along the way, leaving countless families suffering and waiting for answers about what happened to their loved ones.

These are the vulnerable migrants who are of concern to the ICRC.

Chiapas, Mexico. September 2014. The ICRC provides amputee migrants in south-east Mexico with artificial limbs, wheelchairs and other aids.

Chiapas, Mexico. September 2014. The ICRC provides amputee migrants in south-east Mexico with artificial limbs, wheelchairs and other aids. [CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Cornejo]

What is the ICRC doing to help them?

What we do for vulnerable migrants varies from one place to another, depending on the needs and the situation they face in their home countries and in the areas they travel through on their way to their destinations. The ICRC neither tries to prevent nor to encourage migration, but focuses on helping the most vulnerable migrants and their families, regardless of their legal status. It recognizes in particular that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to specific protection under international law.

The ICRC coordinates its actions with those of other organizations that have experience of helping migrants. This includes working with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as they help migrants restore contact with their families via Red Cross messages and phone calls. We also work with the National Societies to help families discover the fate and whereabouts of missing relatives and support them in coping with the absence.

In Mexico, for instance, the ICRC works closely with the Red Cross Societies of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to help migrants along the migration route from Central to North America. We provide migrants with drinking water and orientation, help them contact relatives and assist those with serious injuries or amputations. They can also obtain basic health care in facilities run by the Red Cross Societies.

The ICRC makes regular visits to immigration detention centres along the main migratory routes in the Americas, around the Mediterranean and in South-East Asia. We work with the authorities to improve conditions of detention, treatment and adherence to procedural safeguards, and we help detained migrants contact their families. When needed, the ICRC also provides direct assistance to detained migrants.

Thousands of migrants are behind bars. What is their situation?

The systematic detention of persons because of their immigration status is a matter of great concern. Irregular migrants are often detained on their journeys, or once they have reached their destinations. This is because States have taken to using detention as a tool to manage migration flows. Depriving people of their freedom is a very severe measure, and often has drastic consequences for the individuals concerned. Detention should be used with extreme caution, and less stringent measures should always be preferred. Migrants may be held for months, sometimes years while waiting for deportation. Research has shown the negative impact of administrative detention on the mental health of migrants. This is linked to the uncertainty of the administrative process and fears for the future, which compound the trauma the migrant has already suffered. Minors are particularly vulnerable, especially those who are unaccompanied.

The ICRC sees this negative impact on migrants every day during visits to detention centres, and we are particularly concerned by the risk of indefinite detention. Authorities should ensure that people in detention are treated with dignity and held in decent conditions. The conditions of detention should be non-punitive. This means among other things that even if a facility is closed, migrants should be able to move freely within it.

Why is the ICRC helping detained migrants?

Because we regularly visit people detained in connection with conflict or other violence, we also encounter migrants held in the same facilities. As we do for all detainees, we strive to ensure that they are afforded due process of law, held in decent conditions, treated humanely, and able to maintain contact with the outside world. The latter is especially important in the case of migrants who might not otherwise be able to contact their families or consular authorities. The ICRC also makes sure that the authorities are aware of their obligations under international law – in particular the requirement that they abide by the principle of "non-refoulement."

What have National Societies been doing to help migrants?

Many are focusing on maintaining or restoring contact between family members, and on providing assistance. Some are giving detained migrants more intensive help. The ICRC has been providing these National Societies with support.

Over the last five years, in addition to support individual Societies, the ICRC has organized five workshops on immigration-related detention, attended by National Societies working with detained migrants. The workshops provided an opportunity to discuss best practices and ways of improving the help that the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement gives to detained migrants.