Out of the ‘mouth of a shark’: a humanitarian perspective on migration and displacement

26 March 2018

On 26 March, the ICRC, in partnership with the Graduate Institute, launched the new Global Research and Debate Cycle on Migration and Displacement. ICRC President Peter Maurer and forced migration researcher, Ahmad Al-Rashid discussed how to better assist and protect vulnerable migrants, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). They engaged in an interactive dialogue and raised humanitarian concerns around migration and displacement. The discussion touched on the role of humanitarian organizations in conflict and non-conflict related situations and highlighted the importance of introducing a humanitarian perspective in the debate surrounding these issues.


In 2018, ICRC is organizing the Cycle on Migration and Displacement to address in a comprehensive and multidisciplinary way the needs of migrants and displaced people around the world. It will focus on the main challenges and potential recommendations to tackle some of these issues, such as legal definitions of migrants and displaced people, immigration detention, large-scale cross-border movements, internally displaced people in urban settings, among many others.

Opening remarks

  • Vincent Chetail, Director of the Global Migration Centre and Professor of International Law, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies


  • Melanie Kolbe, Assistant Professor for International Relations and Political Science, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies


  • Peter Maurer, President, ICRC
  • Ahmad Al-Rashid, forced migration researcher from Syria

Summary of the discussion

Melanie Kolbe introduced the discussion by highlighting the increase in cases of forced migration due to civil war and state collapses in different conflict regions. Addressing Ahmad Al-Rashid, who had personally experienced being an IDP and a refugee, she asked how to better protect and assist vulnerable people who cross borders or are internally displaced.

Whatever label we use – migrants, refugees, displaced – we are talking first and foremost about people.

Ahmad Al-Rashid expressed that his personal experience as an IDP in Syria had been challenging, as much of the attention in media and policy was focused on refugees and had moved away from internal displacement, focusing on the so-called 'refugee crisis'. He emphasized that when it comes to debating and discussing migration and displacement, it was important to listen to and include people who have experienced these issues in the debate.

People on the move are experts by their experience.

Peter Maurer pointed out that whatever the label or category may be, it remained critical for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to focus on the vulnerabilities of people displaced within borders, or crossing them, along the routes and upon arrival. According to the research ICRC is currently conducting, some violations of international humanitarian law, especially targeted violations against civilians, can result in increased displacement, both in numbers and time. Mr. Maurer foregrounded that it was essential to prevent the excesses of violence against people for long periods and to adapt to the changing nature of needs in conflicts, as one of the main problems nowadays is prolonged, or protracted displacement, especially in urban settings.

Needs evolve with the dynamics of conflict and require adaptation.

Mr. Al-Rashid added that, in his view, the nature of conflicts was changing. The Syrian conflict was one of the most documented conflicts in human history, he said, where you could even see the killing livestreamed. Because of this new nature of conflicts, classical humanitarian response might not be enough, innovation was needed. As he talked about the needs of people, he stated that when people moved, they had immediate needs in order to survive, like food and shelter. But human beings needed to thrive, not pass their life in a refugee camp.

We should not underestimate how sophisticated the pondering is for each individual and family when making heavy decisions (...) to leave or stay.

Ahmad Al-Rashid stressed that the educational gap was one of the biggest challenges for Syrian children. Over 300,000 children had been born in Turkey since 2011. Those children were in an identity crisis. He stated that a global curriculum for all displaced people was in the discussion to overcome regional divergences.

Dignified and voluntary return is important.

Peter Maurer added that one of the big issues in the current discussions and policies was the containment-integration polarity. This was one of those areas, where evidence and policy saw the biggest gap. In terms of scientific evidence, he added, integration was the only thing that worked, but in terms of policy, it was difficult to have consensual agreement. Governments could not really define policies according to evidence, but were defining policies according to resentment in society. The answer, he said, should be to engage governments to address this gap between evidence and policy, and to help close the gap.

We need a real humanitarian approach to assess vulnerability, and to address these vulnerabilities wherever we can.

Peter Maurer concluded the event by foregrounding the importance to look at people as a whole and not in a fragmented manner. He recalled what Ahmad Al-Rashid mentioned before, namely to put people at the center of reflection, and not to artificially preconceive what solutions are. Focus on people, he emphasized, needed to be at the measurement of policies, not the other way round.