The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement made a forthright plea for the safety and dignity of migrants at the World Humanitarian Summit. In the same week, over a thousand more lives were lost in the Mediterranean sea.

When they realized that the engine-less, wooden vessel they were about to board was going to be towed from Libya to Italy on 26 May, many refused to attempt the crossing and had to be forced on board by the smugglers. When the boat began to take water a few hours later with between 550 and 670 passengers on board, the captain of the towing ship – that was carrying another 800 – had the line cut, leaving all but 87 survivors to drown.

The week the World Humanitarian Summit was held proved one of the deadliest for the Mediterranean migratory route, which has claimed an estimated 2,859 lives this year. It tragically confirmed the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s decision to gather in Istanbul under the banner of migration.

Speaking plainly, away from the cameras and the diplomatic rigidity of the plenaries, Movement representatives called on States to stem the cycle of death and suffering, by bringing humanity back to the centre of their policies. They gathered on a panel entitled “Everywhere for everyone: Promoting the safety and dignity of people who migrate”, moderated by journalist Veronica Pedrosa.

Red Cross Red Crescent leaders at World Humanitarian Summit side event on migration

Left to right: Veronica Pedrosa (formerly Al Jazeera), Dick Clomén (Swedish Red Cross), Karen AbuZayd (UN), Naci Yorulmaz (Turkish Red Crescent), Francesco Rocca (Italian Red Cross, IFRC), Yves Daccord (ICRC), Frehiwot Worku (Ethiopian Red Cross).

 

Beyond security, humane migration policies

Having presided the Italian Red Cross throughout the ‘European migrant crisis’, Francesco Rocca observed that since the migratory flows to Europe began to rise sharply a year ago, “our governments’ policies have grown worse, not better, and many more children have drowned at sea.”

These policies,” added ICRC Director General Yves Daccord, “when they are marked by security only, come with a very specific narrative, a very specific wording: it’s about numbers, about burden, about ‘they’, about danger, about cost… In this narrative you don’t hear ‘human’, you don’t hear vulnerabilities, you don’t hear opportunities. This narrative fuels feelings, violence and xenophobia at community level.”

The Movement is convinced that the first among its seven Fundamental PrinciplesHumanity – is not only meant to inspire the action of its 100 million members across 190 countries, but should also guide policy-making at State level. Panelists were there to send a joint message: current policy frameworks that put security issues before migrants’ rights, needs and expectations, have to change.

All policy makers need to understand that fences, walls and strict border policies have not been and cannot be a solution to address migration problems,” said Turkish Red Crescent Vice President Naci Yorulmaz. “Instead of providing legal avenues of migration,” Rocca added, “so-called ‘border security’ is being recognized over the obligation to protect and support people in need.”

From the morning until late into the night, Libyan Red Crescent volunteers were on the beaches retrieving the bodies of people who died trying to cross from North Africa to Europe. (Photo by Mohannad Karimeh/Libyan Red Crescent)

From the morning until late into the night, Libyan Red Crescent volunteers were on the beaches retrieving the bodies of people who died trying to cross from North Africa to Europe. (Photo by Mohannad Karimeh/Libyan Red Crescent)

The European Union and Turkey agreed on 18 March that “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey”, the aim being toreplace dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe”. The agreement is now at risk of unraveling: just as it is being legally challenged by asylum seekers, the deal has stalled over diplomatic tensions between the EU and Ankara, including a disagreement over the latter’s anti-terrorism laws.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is asking governments to review policies, legal frameworks and services to ensure the rights and dignity of all migrants, irrespective of their legal status. For its part, the Movement has committed to and is currently scaling up its response to better meet the needs of people who move. This collective endeavour begins in the country of origin, accompanies migrants on the road and continues into host communities.

At departure, on the road and upon arrival: everywhere for everyone

We cannot keep on handling the phenomenon of migration as a separate topic from the overall human challenges,” noted Dick Clomén, Head of Policy at the Swedish Red Cross. Noting that migration issues are a consequence of numerous factors such as poverty and conflict, Clomén shifted the focus to “possibilities and opportunities” to find solutions earlier on the trail.

The Secretary General of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society also argued that the primary solution remains political solutions to conflicts, as well as increased assistance to countries of origin. “Many of these migrants would prefer to stay in their home countries,” she remarked. “It’s easier and less costly, and requires less resources, to help people in their countries of origin rather than when they are on the move.” Since then, the European Union has issued a new framework proposal to channel more aid into nine African and Middle Easter countries, including Ethiopia and Syria.

Migration Facts and Figures - Mediterranean Sea

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Beyond policies at the country-level, migration is transnational by essence, meaning that “we have to be extra extraordinarily careful about how we protect and assist migrants along the road,” said Daccord. On the Balkans route, the Red Cross Red Crescent is mobilizing around 110,000 volunteers and staff in 27 countries, and has so far reached at least 654,000 people through health interventions, distribution of food and non-food items, Internet connectivity and phone charging stations, among other services. The panel used this opportunity to thank governments and volunteers for their generosity in assisting with this colossal yet crucial task.

Yet our responsibility towards people who move does not end on the trail. “How do we integrate 3-4 million migrants every year?” asked Daccord. “That’s the right question.”

According to the panel, the answer begins by removing the taint of security concerns from our perception of migrants: when we stop seeing them as a threat, we can recognize them as human beings with needs, hopes and potential.

“People who migrate make an important contribution to both the communities of origin and the communities that host them,” Rocca said. Also on the panel, Karen AbuZayd, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, joined her voice in calling for the detoxification of the public discourse: “We have to improve the narrative.”

For many panelists the use of camps is part of the problem, and to Rocca do not amount to a dignified solution: “We must not stop talking clearly to governments about their  obligations to create a safe environment where the people in need are respected,” he said. For Daccord, “camps will not help” so long as policies are not conducive to integration, including in the job market as well as the education and health systems.

On the way from Istanbul

The UN General Assembly high-level meeting on refugees and migrants, to be held on 19 September 2016, will test our collective will and ability to move away from toxic public discourses and exclusionary policies, and towards a treatment of people on the move that is reflective of our shared humanity.

But the work continues now. Elhadj As Sy, when he powerfully reiterated the Movement’s plea, also reminded that as the weather becomes warmer and the sea calmer in the summer months, the Mediterranean migratory flow can be expected to rise. The recent streak of shipwrecks (the latest, at the time of writing, having claimed another 320 souls off Crete) only makes more acute the urgency to grant migrants appropriate international protection as well as necessary assistance and services.

In Rocca’s words, “Let us resolve towards a situation. . . in which no one mother or father loses a child to sea, in the dead of the night.”

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