Migration Article

To trust, or not to trust?

That is a question many migrants must ask themselves every day as they navigate life on the move, or in new surroundings. A study from the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement sheds light on how to ensure migrants, including refugees, can trust those who are trying to help.

In the town of Musina, along South Africa’s northern border with Zimbabwe, Marrieth Ndlela talks to a young man who travelled more than 1,000 kilometers — by foot, car and bus — from the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] looking for a safe haven.

“I remember the first month I arrived here, I was afraid,” says Amman, who was a music teacher when he fled his country due to instability and violence. “When you arrive in a new country and you don’t know anyone, it’s scary. I was afraid about the life here… especially in Pretoria, the thieves, you know, can kill you anytime. And I’ve seen it. They killed some guy in front of me. I was really afraid.”

Sadly, it is not uncommon for migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, to experience such shocks and perils along their journeys. Many did not want to leave home but were forced away by armed violence. Others travelled through areas rife with banditry, were stopped or arrested by police or have stayed in communities where not everyone made them feel welcome.

Here in Musina, migrants come from as far away as Ethiopia and Eritrea, DRC and Tanzania, as well as neighboring countries such as Zambia and Mozambique. Given all this, volunteers in Musina know migrants often have very good reason to be wary of anyone who might approach them.

This distrust can dramatically increase their vulnerability if they are afraid to seek help or protection, says Ndela, who volunteers for the local Musina branch of the South African Red Cross Society as part of teams that offer tests for infectious diseases, as well as services that help migrants stay in touch with family members far away.

“Trust is very important between volunteers and migrants,” says Ndela. “So what we do as volunteers is to build a relationship with migrants. We go daily to places where migrants feel safe so that they get to be used to us and get to know who we are.”

What are migrants most distrustful about? “They are worried what might happen to them,” Ndela says, “because maybe they don’t have documents or worry that their documents are invalid. Most of them are worried of being deported to their country of origin. So we tell them that we do not share any information they give us, and that we help everyone whether they are documented or not.”

“When you arrive in a new country and you don’t know anyone, it’s scary. I was afraid about the life here.”

Amman,
who travelled more than 1,000 kilometers from
Democratic Republic of the Congo
looking for safe haven in South Africa

 

“We are usually the first people they meet when they come to our country. So we try to offer them support and create the trust via offering the warmest welcome we can … with our actions, being present, creating a safe environment and by helping them.”

Sami Rahikainen, Finnish Red Cross volunteer who assists resettled refugees.

A critical factor

While trust is important to all human interactions and relationships, the question of trust in humanitarian work has always been particularly critical. In the context of migration, the issue is fraught with complexities, in which humanitarians must maintain not only the trust of migrants, but also government authorities, host communities, and the general public, among others.

These are some of the reasons that the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement embarked on a worldwide study to better understand migrants concerns and perceptions when it comes to humanitarian assistance and protection. The report, called “Migrants’ Perspectives: Building Trust in Humanitarian Action” was released on 13 December 2022 by the Red Cross Red Crescent Global Migration Lab just prior to International Migrants Day on Dec. 18.

The report is based on online and face-to-face surveys, interviews and focus group discussions with nearly 17,000 migrants across more than 15 countries.  While the findings reveal Red Cross and Red Crescent actors are, generally, trusted by people on the move, “that trust is not universal and work to build and maintain trust must continue,” the report concluded.

“While most migrants involved in this research associated the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems with safety and hope (73%), they also expressed confusion about the work Red Cross and Red Crescent actors do with and for migrants, highlighting the need for strategies to better communicate services.”

Case in point: Not all migrants understand that Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies are independent from government authorities. “Only approximately 21% of all migrants recognised Red Cross and Red Crescent actors as independent to public authorities in their countries of birth and 26% in their current countries,” according to the report.

That’s a big problem when trying to help people who may be wary of public authorities. Consider one big trust issue that people around the world deal with every day: protection of personal data. As part of her work helping migrants to reconnect with loved ones far away, Ndela must collect information about the people sending the messages as well as the loved ones they are trying to reach.

“So we do a lot of awareness raising, telling them about who we are and what we do, and about our Seven Fundamental Principles, such as Independence and Neutrality,” she says, “and to ensure them that the information they give us will never be shared with any authorities or law enforcement or anyone outside the Red Cross.”

The report’s findings by the numbers

85: percentage of migrants who noted Red Cross and Red Crescent actors treated them with dignity and respect

73: percentage of migrants involved in this research who associated the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems with safety and hope. However, many expressed confusion about the work Red Cross and Red Crescent actors do with and for migrants, highlighting the need for strategies to better communicate services of Red Cross and Red Crescent actors in providing humanitarian assistance and protection to migrants in vulnerable situations, irrespective of legal status.

26: approximate percentage of migrants who recognised Red Cross and Red Crescent actors as independent to public authorities in the countries where they currently were residing.

21: percentage of all migrants who recognised Red Cross and Red Crescent actors as independent to public authorities in their countries of birth.

25: percentage of migrants interviewed who expressed fear that accessing humanitarian assistance and protection from humanitarian organisations may increase risks of detention or deportation.

According to the report, Migrants’ Perspectives: Building Trust in Humanitarian Action, 73 per cent of respondents said they associated the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems with safety and hope. However, they also expressed confusion about the work Red Cross and Red Crescent actors do with and for migrants, highlighting the need for strategies to better communicate services, irrespective of legal status.

This chart shows the percentage of surveyed migrants who said they feared they would be exposed to risk of detention or deportation if they seek humanitarian assistance and protection.

Neutrality and Independence

Understanding and responding to people’s perceptions can be tricky because many National Societies must coordinate with public authorities to some degree as part of their efforts to help migrants. The first among several key recommendations from the report (see sidebar) is to “uphold the principle of independence and take action to communicate when, where and in what context humanitarian organisations are cooperating with public authorities.”

At the same time, National Societies must also maintain the trust of authorities so they understand, respect and don’t interfere with their purely humanitarian work.

In the Sahel, where conditions for migrants are both extremely harsh and dangerous, these dynamics are ever present. According to the report, more than 70 per cent of migrants in Niger surveyed said they feared seeking humanitarian assistance or protection would put them at risk of detention or deportation. In addition, there have been increasing efforts by some governments in recent years to use development aid and humanitarian services to encourage people not to migrate, or keep those already en route from moving further.

“To ensure the trust of migrants, it’s important not to encourage or discourage them on their migration project,” explains IFRC migration expert Maazou Oumarou, based in Niamey, Niger, who conducted some of the research behind the new report. “We are neutral on that point. You can’t say to them, ‘Don’t go to Europe because there’s nothing there for you.’ Because if you do, they will ask themselves the question: ‘Why is this person telling me this?’ Then, they will avoid you and prefer to go to someone who is in favor of their project.”

This is one of many reasons the Movement approaches migration from a purely humanitarian perspective. Its aim is to respond to humanitarian needs and reduce suffering, without seeking to encourage, discourage or prevent migration. “It’s serious because that distrust could limit their access to the services we offer and so their situation will only get worse,” he says.

Key recommendations of the report “Migrants’ Perspectives: Building Trust in Humanitarian Action

  1. Uphold the principle of independence and take action to communicate when, where and in what context humanitarian organisations are cooperating with public authorities.
  2. Improve migrants’ effective access to understandable, relevant and reliable information on services, protection, assistance, and support available along their journeys.
  3. Ensure humanitarian action is inclusive, responsive to local contexts and enables the participation of migrants in decision-making processes.
  4. Invest in staff and volunteer diversity – engaging people with a lived experience of migration – as well as in training to ensure competence and integrity.
  5. Invest and engage in evidence-based humanitarian diplomacy on migrants’ needs and vulnerabilities and a principled approach to humanitarian action.

1- One key way to maintain trust is to go to the people and meet them on their own terms. Here, a team with the Colombian Red Cross offers services to Venezuelan migrants travelling through remote parts of the country.
2- Migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, often find themselves in camps like this one where a variety of humanitarian organizations provide services under the auspices of authorities. This can cause confusion and lead to the perception that humanitarian organizations are not fully independent from authorities, so it is important to communicate and convey the independence clearly and on a regular basis.

A smooth arrival

This kind of trust is just as important when people arrive in their final or destination country. This becomes increasingly clear in Helsinki International Airport, as Sami Rahikainen makes his way through the security checkpoint and down the arrival gates.

Rahikainen is part of a group of Finnish Red Cross volunteers who regularly go to the airport to welcome people arriving as part of country’s resettlement programme.  “We try to give people as smooth arrival as possible,” he says, standing in gate area, with airplanes taxiing in the background.

“Many have been travelling long time, even two to three days,” he says, noting that their journey likely began long before they boarded the airplanes. Some may have survived conflict or lived in a refugee camps for a long time, while other people may have experienced trauma or have health issues. Given all this, building trust is critical.

“We are usually the first people they meet when they come to our country. So we try to offer them support and create the trust via offering the warmest welcome we can — with our actions, being present, creating a safe environment and by helping them.”

“Sometimes those arriving are too tired or even afraid to ask questions. So offering information is one part of creating trust,” he says. It could be simple things like when and where is their connecting flight, or describing their new home city or hometown and the people they will meet.

Migrants often endure harrowing journeys in harsh conditions and may be under considerable stress. Empathy, understanding, and respect are key tools to help gain and maintain the trust of people on the move.

Trust leads to openness

In other areas, the migration dynamic is quite different. But the fundamental issues are very similar. Ruthraj Senadhirajah is a tracing officer — helping migrants reconnect with loved ones far away — for the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society’s Batticaloa Branch along the country’s eastern coast. Most of his work involves situations in which Sri Lankans are working, or have worked, in foreign countries.

To really help people, they have to feel comfortable opening up to you and sharing things about their personal lives. To illustrate his point, he tells the story of a Sri Lankan man who had to return home after suffering a stroke and was paralyzed while working in Saudi Arabia.

“The family has absolutely nothing to eat,” Senadhirajah says. “His wife found a job in the city in a shop, earning very little money for their day-to-day expenses. She had to travel 10 kilometers on a motor bike to the city. But because of the fuel crisis and the petrol price increase, she could not go to the shop anymore. Now she is at home with four members who are in the family.”

From this information, Ruthraj and the woman could begin talking about how the Red Cross can help. People like her are willing to open up he says because they’ve seen Red Cross actions through many crises — internal conflict, natural disasters, pandemics. “Stories like this ones are told to me because people trust Red Cross and they know we might we might be able to do something.”

It’s also critical, adds Marieth Ndela, that when talking with migrants, you are able to speak their language. This is one reason the Musina branch has volunteers who come from the same countries as the migrants. Among them, the volunteers can speak more than 10 languages, from French and Portuguese to Shona, Zulu and Sanga, among others. This is critical if you really want to understand what people are going through.

“We have to understand their mental state and that they have been through a lot, travelling alone with a lot of stress,” she adds. “They come here with hope and find out it’s not always according to expectation and they end up being homeless. It’s very difficult and it does affect their mental state and you need to be able put yourself in their shoes.”

Related

This post is also available in:

Discover more stories

Get stories worth sharing delivered to your inbox

Want to stay up to date?

This might interest you...

From volunteer to teacher

Souad finds a new path after losing everything.

Check it out