Humanitarian Action across Borders: Migration in the Americas (speech)

Migrants from Central America wait for a train to leave. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central America risk their lives every year in search of a better life in the United States.


Migrants from Central America wait for a train to leave. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central America risk their lives every year in search of a better life in the United States.

On January 14, the American Red Cross hosted an important conference in Washington on migration in the Americas, entitled “Humanitarian Action across Borders”. The event brought together leading advocates, service providers, and government representatives (see speaker list) to focus on the humanitarian needs of migrants WAMU senior reporter, Armando Trull, emceed the conference, which began with opening remarks by the American Red Cross’ senior vice president of international operations, Harold Brooks, followed by a speech given by the ICRC’s DC-based head of regional delegation for North America, François Stamm. His speech is below but the event was also webcast as a Google Hangout. Also, check out this photo gallery on icrc.org.

Migration and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

Speech by ICRC Head of Regional Delegation for North America, François Stamm, delivered on January 13, 2015 in Washington DC

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Red Cross friends,

When you think of the International Committee of the Red Cross, chances are, the word “migration” doesn’t automatically spring to mind.

Perhaps you think of Guantanamo, Afghanistan, or Syria. Or maybe you think of the Geneva Conventions and armed conflict. And all those things are correct.

But I hope to convince you that when you think of the ICRC, and the broader International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in general, you SHOULD think about migration, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable, such as children and detainees.

You see, it’s our job to protect and help civilians – and as part of a truly global Movement, present in 189 countries, the Red Cross and Red Crescent is uniquely positioned to come up with diverse, dynamic and creative solutions to migration-related problems. 

From Libya to Italy, from Lebanon to Jordan, from Honduras to the United States, and beyond, migration is a transnational issue involving around 230 million people, including more than 70 million who have been forced to flee their countries against their will... due to conflict, violence, repression, persecution, natural disasters, environmental degradation, poverty, and poor governance… just to name a few reasons.

Let me say that number again: 70 million people forced to flee their home countries. That’s more than the entire population of France or the UK. More than the populations of California and Texas combined. People forced to leave their possessions behind. Separated from loved ones. Threatened by human traffickers, extortion, or sexual abuse.

Each year, hundreds of thousands from Central America risk life and limb, riding atop dangerous rail cars on what is known as La Bestia, or the Beast, trying to reach the US.

In Africa, you can find up to 300 migrants packed onto a single truck at a time, passing through Niger on a 600-mile journey across the desert in sweltering heat.

At a passport center in Sana’a you can find a baby crawling on the dusty floor – too little to understand his situation – too young to share in his mother’s despair as she awaits their deportation from Yemen to Ethiopia.

They are floating in the middle of the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean, stuffed into shipping containers and aboard leaky vessels bound for rugged shores.

You can find them behind bars and in holding centers around the world – the undocumented, the irregular, the unwanted, the illegal.

These are the most vulnerable migrants and those whom the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement pledged back in 2007 to help.

Our focus is on addressing their needs and the needs of their families, and we offer our help regardless of a person’s legal status.

As political and polarizing as it can be, as with other issues, we don’t take sides on migration. We accept that it’s a growing reality in a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening, armed conflicts are becoming more protracted and complex, urban violence is spreading, and there is no shortage to the inequality and disparity that drives people from their homes in search of a better life – and in some cases, simply another life – in a place where they’re not threatened and where they can live in peace with their families.

What the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement does for vulnerable migrants varies from one place to another, depending on their needs, the situation in their home countries, and the challenges they face along their journey.

For example, the ICRC works closely with the Red Cross Societies of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to help migrants along the route from Central to North America. We provide drinking water, help them contact their relatives, and assist those with injuries or who have lost an arm or a leg on that treacherous train ride aboard La Bestia.

Local Red Cross Societies also run basic health care facilities. From January to August of last year alone, almost 19,000 migrants received aid at Red Cross and ICRC assistance points in Mexico. In Honduras, around 17,000 received hygiene items, like soap, plus food for unaccompanied children and transportation.

The ICRC also has a special role to play in favor of detained migrants. Over the past few years, the detention of migrants as a result of their immigration status has indeed become a major concern of ours. Undocumented or irregular migrants are often detained along the journey or when they reach their destination.

Many governments have taken to using detention as a tool to curb the flow of people over their borders. These migrants can wind up spending months or even years behind bars or locked up in centers while awaiting deportation.

This uncertainty causes very real anguish – often compounding other types of trauma a migrant may have experienced. The ICRC witnesses the negative impact of administrative detention during our visits to holding centers and we’re particularly concerned about the risks of indefinite detention. So we stress upon authorities that people in detention must be treated with dignity and held in decent conditions… and in cases of administrative detention, conditions must be non-punitive. For example, even if a facility is closed off, migrants should be able to move freely within its walls. And we advocate that migrants should be able to maintain contact with the outside world, in particular with their families.

You know, the need for contact… the need to know where your loved one is, it’s one of those things that we take for granted. But time and again, what you discover as someone who works for the Red Cross, is that it is perhaps THE most basic and fundamental need that people have. Before they want a drink of water, or anything to eat. Before they want a blanket or a roof over their heads. They want to know: Is my son okay? Is my daughter safe? Is my husband alive? Did my wife make it out?

And it is to answer these questions that, in addition to all of the other activities I just described, one of the most important things the Red Cross and Red Crescent does for migrants is help reconnect them with their families through calling centers, Red Cross Messages and the Internet. 

That’s also why we provide forensic support and expertise in cases of migrants who have died or gone missing along the way. The International Organization for Migration says more than 40,000 migrants have DIED worldwide since 2000, including 6,000 along the US Mexico border. That’s a lot of families left without answers. So we’ve also started pilot projects to support them in overcoming the difficulties linked to the disappearance of a loved one. And finally, we monitor the humanitarian consequences of deportation, while monitoring conditions of repatriation.

To say that the issues surrounding vulnerable migrants are complex, is an understatement. There are no easy answers, as all of you in this room know too well.

Many of you represent organizations that have been grappling with these issues far longer than we have, and whose expertise and knowledge are unparalleled. But if we’re here today, it’s because we all recognize that no single organization or government agency can tackle these problems on their own. We each have an important role to play.

So, as I said at the beginning of my talk, when you think of migrants, especially vulnerable ones, I hope you think of the ICRC and the broader Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and that moving forward, we can work together to come up with solutions to these seemingly intractable problems.... Because we must do more than talk. We must act.

As humanitarians, we owe it to the little boy, the young girl, the frightened mother or the desperate father who, during the time it took me to give this speech, set off on a dangerous and unpredictable journey towards the unknown.

Thank you.