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Migrants in need report barriers to assistance and fragile trust in humanitarian organizations


Many migrants in vulnerable situations across the world face shrinking access to international protection, increasingly restrictive immigration policies, and riskier journeys. In recent years, access to asylum and other international safeguards has at times become more difficult, as some governments have scaled back services and expressed unease about assisting migrants in need.

As a result, many refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants depend on humanitarian organizations as their first and last resource for humanitarian assistance and protection. Independent groups that provide food, shelter, health care, legal assistance, and other essential services at borders, in detention centers, and elsewhere can be a lifeline for migrants who are in need and uncertain about their fate at different stages of their journeys. Accessing support, however, depends on migrants’ ability to trust that humanitarian organizations are working in their best interest, can adequately respond to their needs, and will not cooperate with efforts to detain or deport them. Without trust, organizations are less able to provide much-needed support, and migrants may be inclined to forgo assistance, with potentially life-threatening consequences. Moreover, if support is not available and easily accessible, individuals in need may be unable to take advantage of it.

According to large-scale research by the Red Cross Red Crescent Global Migration Lab, around the world, trust is increasingly fragile. Interviews, focus group discussions, and surveys with more than 16,000 migrants across 15 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, and Europe in 2022 suggest that, despite humanitarian organizations’ efforts to reach the most vulnerable, fear of detention and deportation may prevent many refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants from seeking help. In addition, migrants’ needs are often unmet throughout their journeys, with many requiring assistance and protection but not receiving it, often due to barriers linked to awareness, availability, and eligibility for support.

These findings offer insights into the previously poorly understood questions of whether migrants trust humanitarian organizations and what affects that trust and consequently their access to assistance and protection. Despite a recognition that trust is vital for assisting migrants in vulnerable situations, previous studies have tended to focus on the humanitarian sector as a whole, with a broad focus on trust among donors, practitioners, and governments. These studies provide little insight into the actual lived experiences of migrants in particular. Furthermore, studies have tended to be regional or national in scope, and often site- or group-specific, such as trust among refugees in a particular camp. This highlights the need for more global, migration-specific research to inform and guide the work of humanitarian organizations engaged in supporting migrants in vulnerable situations.

This article explores aspects of migrants’ trust in humanitarian organizations and their challenges seeking and accessing support. It also highlights gaps and challenges in the provision of support and protection.

Humanitarian Organizations and Public Authorities: Independence Matters

A key element that can break or build migrants’ trust in organizations is their perception of the relationship between humanitarian actors and public authorities. Independence is a precondition for migrants to trust humanitarian organizations (particularly for those in vulnerable situations) and underscores the importance of principled humanitarian action.

Yet, more often than not, this independence is poorly understood. For instance, only 21 percent of all migrants surveyed identified Red Cross and Red Crescent actors as independent from public authorities in their countries of birth and only 26 percent identified these actors as independent from authorities in their current locations. In fact, most migrants were unsure of the level of Red Cross and Red Crescent actors’ independence from governments.

Since organizations’ independence is critical, this finding is cause for concern. Lack of clarity among migrants as to the relationship between humanitarian organizations and immigration authorities—or actual shortcomings in the way humanitarian principles are respected in practice—is an issue that advocates insist must be urgently addressed. As the research makes clear, it is not merely actual organizational independence that matters but also the appearance of independence that is essential for migrants’ perceptions of safety when seeking or accessing support throughout their journeys.

The implications of migrants’ perceptions of organizational independence cannot be overstated. In the research, 25 percent of migrants expressed fears about seeking assistance and protection from any humanitarian organization due to potential risks of detention or deportation. Across all countries examined, migrants who most perceived this risk were those in particularly vulnerable situations. Nearly half (48 percent) of migrants who self-identified as deportees, 40 percent of those whose asylum applications had been rejected, and 37 percent of those with irregular status said that seeking support from humanitarian organizations could carry a risk of detention or deportation (see Figure 1 in the PDF).

In short, fear of detention and deportation may keep migrants who are in vulnerable situations from seeking support, thus placing their lives and welfare at risk. For instance, a young female migrant in Southern Africa reported being “uncomfortable with sharing my personal information [with any providers of assistance] because I do not want to be taken back.” Meanwhile, a woman in the Americas spoke of the fear and anxiety felt during her migration journey: “That is why in each place, we do not stop to ask if there is help and where there is help for migrants. Imagine, we would only be exposing ourselves… Let no one ask us too many questions or ask us for papers or anything.” To address these fears, humanitarian organizations might explore ways to more directly and visibly articulate their independence and clearly communicate when, where, and in what context they cooperate with public authorities, particularly immigration officials.

Along the Journey, a Trail of Unmet Needs

Despite attempts by humanitarian organizations to reach migrants in vulnerable situations wherever they may be, most migrants reported having either needed assistance that was unavailable at points in their journeys or having received support that fell short of their immediate needs.

Unmet needs were persistent across countries of origin/return, transit, and destination. While 44 percent of migrants surveyed reported receiving some form of assistance along their journeys, 79 percent said there were other times that it had not been available or accessible. For instance, a migrant may have received support while in transit but not when needed upon arrival or return.

For instance, migrants in the Americas reported they had an unmet need for reliable, secure, and up-to-date information, as well as access to transportation, food, safe and quality accommodation, clothing, mental-health and psychosocial support, and accompaniment in immigration procedures. In Southern Africa, migrants spoke of unmet needs for services that provide food security; livelihood programs; water, sanitation, and hygiene; and mental-health and psychosocial support.

Migrants who self-identified as refugees or stateless reported the highest level of unmet needs for humanitarian assistance and protection. People who were stateless or had their asylum claims dismissed were the least likely to have received support (see Figure 2). Given the growing scale of humanitarian need, with a record 100 million people forcibly displaced internally or internationally as of May 2022, these results underscore the vulnerabilities that many migrants may experience at different points along their routes.

Even when migrants receive humanitarian support, it often falls short of their most immediate needs. Just 49 percent of individuals surveyed agreed that the support available covered their “most important needs.” In interviews and focus groups, migrants reiterated this point, although responses varied slightly by country. For instance, in Australia, some migrants requested humanitarian support be provided beyond initial arrival or settlement. According to one female migrant, “It’s amazing when I first arrived. [Providers] support us with everything. But two and a half years later, we need more opportunity for job hunting, interviews. We also need financial support.” In Sweden, some migrants expressed distrust and frustration at not receiving assistance and protection they had asked for and for which others in Sweden (from other countries, ethnicities, or language groups) were eligible; “Everyone has seen how different they are treating us,” said one male migrant. In Zambia, respondents reported that services did not reach all migrants in need or fulfill the needs of those it does reach. “The assistance was not enough because we had households which did not receive support,” said one male adult migrant. “We have been receiving cash, however it not enough. As a result, there have been cases of malnutrition,” said another.

Key Barriers: Awareness, Availability, and Eligibility

The research highlighted three key barriers to migrants seeking and accessing humanitarian assistance and protection: limited awareness of services and information, limited availability, and restrictions on eligibility.

When asked why they had not received support, 40 percent of migrants with an unmet need stated they “did not know where to get support” and 37 percent said “there was no support available” (see Figure 3). These were the top two reasons in all countries surveyed (except Sweden, which had a low sample size). The third most frequently cited barrier was eligibility criteria for support (21 percent). These three barriers were reported by migrants irrespective of their legal status and underline key challenges facing humanitarian organizations working with migrants.

Barriers were recurrent themes in interviews and focus group discussions. In terms of awareness, a female migrant in Argentina said, “The main obstacle that a migrant can have in not receiving help is precisely not knowing where to go. It is the ignorance that there are entities that can help us and where to find them. And that is the most difficult thing for a migrant, because you feel alone and do not know where to go.” Migrants in Honduras similarly noted that a lack of knowledge and information about where to physically access support increased their vulnerability and helplessness while in transit. According to migrants in Australia and Finland, not having access to accurate and reliable information on how to access assistance and protection led them to rely on other (sometimes less credible) individuals or networks, such as for-profit migration agents or families and friends with outdated information.

Regarding availability of services, some migrants in Argentina spoke about travelling across borders in South America without encountering any humanitarian organizations, while migrants in Sweden noted that organizations’ support ceased after a period of time or once they changed legal status. Likewise, migrants in Australia emphasized barriers to access related to their legal status. “People arrive on certain types of visas, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said one female migrant. “Just because we arrived on a different [non-humanitarian] visa doesn’t mean there wasn’t trauma,” she added. “It would’ve meant so much if there was anything [to support us].”

Indeed, barriers related to eligibility were closely associated with perceptions of discrimination or unfairness based on nationality and/or legal status. For instance, some migrants in Argentina, Finland, and Sweden felt that only certain groups—such as Venezuelans in the Americas and Ukrainians in Europe—were eligible for support. One Colombian migrant said he had heard about organizations “that they didn’t help Colombians on the road because they could only help Venezuelans.” As a result, “I wouldn’t ask the organizations for help, I really wouldn’t.” As noted above, migrants in Australia and Sweden also voiced concerns that their legal status (or lack thereof) made them ineligible for services regardless of their level of need.

Unmet Needs and Fragile Trust

As this research demonstrates, the vast humanitarian needs of migrants in vulnerable situations are, for a variety of reasons, often not being fully met. These migrants also often have only a fragile trust in humanitarian organizations. One key finding from the research is that migrants’ perceptions of humanitarian organizations’ independence matter just as much as independence itself. When organizations do not remain independent or are not perceived as such, this jeopardizes their ability to serve migrants in need. Protecting individuals’ data, avoiding involvement with governments’ implementation of immigration policies, and carefully considering whether to support activities such as returns has immediate implications for real or perceived independence and affects migrants’ trust.

A second finding is that migrants face significant gaps in accessing humanitarian assistance and protection throughout their journeys. Concrete action to improve the reach, quality, and quantity of support might for instance ensure participation of migrants and local community organizations in the design and evaluation of interventions and improve access to and responsiveness of services and support.

Thirdly, barriers related to awareness, availability, and eligibility prevent many migrants’ access to support. To address these issues, organizations could investigate and test ways to better communicate information about migrants’ rights and their services across countries and along migratory routes. They could also consider cross-border models of coordination and collaboration that facilitate awareness of and access to comparable humanitarian support throughout migrants’ journeys.

There are likely many factors contributing to these outcomes, including the limited resources for humanitarian organizations in the face of a historic level of need, policies by some governments criminalizing the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants, and other constraints on organizations’ abilities to operate. Border and immigration enforcement policies also may make some migrants distrustful of anyone even slightly resembling a government authority.

Fundamentally, humanitarian organizations alone cannot address the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, and by necessity must work collaboratively with authorities to ensure their safety, dignity, and wellbeing. The fact that many migrants associate humanitarian assistance and protection with detention or deportation, that they experience a persistent trail of unmet needs across their journeys, and face barriers to accessing assistance and protection, affects their trust in humanitarian action and their effective access to much-needed support. Meeting the humanitarian needs of people who cross borders is not only the responsibility of independent humanitarians, but also of governments. The humanitarian imperative to protect and assist all people in vulnerable situations, irrespective of legal status, is universal. This research contributes to a growing body of evidence that policies and practices that erode migrants’ trust in governments and humanitarian organizations alike can have far-reaching consequences.

Source: Migration Policy Institute