Category Archives: Knowledge Mobilization

Better management of dead and missing migrants needed in Europe

Originally from IRIN by Kristy Siegfried

JOHANNESBURG, 28 July 2014 (IRIN) – As the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching southern Europe’s shores this year continues to climb – to about 75,000 at last count – so too does the death toll from attempts to cross the Mediterranean in over-crowded, unseaworthy boats. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 800 migrants have died trying to make the treacherous crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the year. 

Last week alone, the bodies of 29 migrants were found in the packed hold of a fishing boat where they are thought to have been overcome by engine fumes. According to survivor accounts, 60 others who tried to escape from the suffocating hold were stabbed and thrown overboard by five fellow passengers. A day earlier, the Italian navy rescued 12 people after their rubber dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya. Another 109 who were on the boat are missing.

An unknown number of other migrants who attempt the journey disappear without a trace, their bodies presumably claimed by the sea, leaving families back home desperate for news of their loved ones that never comes.

Yafet Gibe, an Eritrean refugee living in Sudan, last heard from his wife, Brikti, who was trying to reach Europe with their 20-month-old daughter, over a month ago. She called him from Libya, the departure point for most migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, on 20 June  and told him that she would be boarding a boat on 28 June. Both a friend of Gibe’s based in Libya and the smuggler who had charged US$1,600 for the journey from Sudan to Libya and another $1,700 for the Mediterranean crossing, confirmed that Brikti and her child left on the boat as planned. 

But Gibe, who had planned to join his wife in Europe with their other child at a later stage, has not heard from her since and he learned that about 250 other migrants and asylum seekers travelling on the same boat have also failed to make contact with their families. The smuggler insists that they are all in an Italian prison, but as the weeks pass with no word from any of them, this seems increasingly unlikely.

“Now I’m in Sudan and there’s no one that can help me,” Gibe told IRIN over the phone from Khartoum. “Some of my friends in Europe have contacted the Red Cross and they’re checking the names of those arriving in Italy, but there’s no news.”

No system for identifying dead migrants

Currently, Europe has no centralized system for identifying the bodies of migrants, who often travel without documentation, nor for informing their families in origin countries. Where there is no dead body available to collect DNA samples and other identifying data, the task of helping families to trace missing relatives is even harder. Now there is mounting pressure from migrant and human rights advocates who argue that migrants’ families have a right to know the fate of missing relatives and European governments should be doing more to help them.

“There’s an inability to grieve when you don’t have closure; entire lives become focused on the return of the loved one and family relations can disintegrate”

“There’s an inability to grieve when you don’t have closure; entire lives become focused on the return of a loved one and family relations can disintegrate,” said Simon Robins, a researcher with the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, who recently co-authored a briefing paper on how Europe could better deal with the migrants who die or go missing on its southern frontier.

He and his co-author Iosif Kovras from Queen’s University, Belfast argue that “there is a humanitarian imperative and a moral and legal responsibility” to attempt to identify the bodies of dead migrants, inform their relatives and treat their bodies with dignity. However, based on research Kovras conducted on the Greek island of Lesbos, this rarely happens. He found “a gray zone where no authority assumed responsibility” for dealing with the bodies of migrants retrieved by the island’s coast guard. Nor is there any national or EU budget allocated for their burial.  The result is that “unidentified migrants are hastily buried in unmarked graves” making it impossible for families to locate their remains.

“Gathering data from bodies is crucial where there is a body, but clearly a significant fraction of bodies are at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and will never be found,” said Robins, adding that there are still ways of reconstructing who was on a boat.

Interviewing shipwreck survivors

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) interviews survivors of shipwrecks and other disasters at sea who are brought to Italian ports in an effort to compile a list of migrants whose bodies were lost or dumped at sea. The list is then passed on to the Italian authorities. 

“What happens in practice is that as soon as a new shipwreck is reported, we’re immediately called by the families. We would then put them in touch with someone who was on the boat to determine if their relative was there,” explained Simona Moscarelli, a migration law expert with IOM in Rome. “In some cases, we’ve also accompanied migrants’ relatives to the police so they can report the missing.”

The shipwreck that claimed the lives of more than 350 mainly Eritrean asylum seekers off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 shocked the world and provided the impetus for the Italian navy’s search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which has rescued tens of thousands of migrants since it launched. The incident was unusual in that it occurred so close to shore that divers were able to retrieve the bodies. However nine months later, more than half of those bodies remain unidentified and the families of those that have been identified are yet to be officially notified, according to the Italian Red Cross.

Local authorities have taken DNA samples from all of the bodies, but without comparison samples from close relatives (known as ante-mortem data) that would allow a match to be made, the samples have little value. The 50 percent of the bodies that have been identified were mainly as a result of linking up relatives (who called organizations like the Red Cross and IOM in the days following the tragedy) with survivors who could confirm whether or not their family members were on the boat.

Both the Red Cross and IOM have a presence in Eritrea and potentially could collect DNA samples from relatives, but according to Lourdes Penados, regional forensic advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not many of the immediate family in Eritrea have made contact and asking them to present themselves for DNA collection presents considerable diplomatic and security challenges in a country where emigrating without the permission of the state is forbidden and severely punished.  

Lack of centralized databases

ICRC hosted a conference in November 2013 on the issue of how Europe’s Mediterranean countries could better manage and identify dead migrants. 

“We found that the problems are similar in most of these countries,” Penados told IRIN. “There’s a lack of databases for unidentified bodies and a lack of communication between institutions at the national and regional levels.”

A number of recommendations came out of the conference, including that there be standardized practices for collecting and managing information on dead migrants and that the data be recorded in centralized databases accessible to all relevant institutions. However, Penados said progress on implementing the recommendations had so far been very slow despite the ICRC’s efforts to lobby the European Union (EU) on the issue. 

“It’s a regional issue so the EU has to get involved and also allocate resources for this centralization to happen,” she said.

One of the major impediments remains the lack of any mechanism to link post-mortem data from European countries where dead migrants are found with ante-mortem data from their countries of origin all over the world. 

“It’s potentially a hugely complicated logistical problem,” admitted Robins, who nevertheless argued that with sufficient political will, the obstacles could be overcome.

Andreas Kleiser of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) agreed that tracing dead migrants back to their families in various origin countries would take “a sizeable effort” but that similarly complex efforts to identify the dead in the wake of natural disasters and conflicts had yielded results. 

“If you go back to the [2004] tsunami in Thailand, you had about 8,500 victims, among them many tourists from all over the globe. So you had to find the family members and get the DNA references and that was done. Interpol and national police forces cooperated to ask family members for DNA samples.

“So it can be done, but it takes a mechanism to coordinate these things and you need money.”

Last year, ICMP and IOM signed a cooperation agreement that aims to draw on ICMP’s long experience in using DNA testing to trace the missing and its sizeable database of reference and victim profiles and align this with IOM’s presence in origin countries where it could collect missing person information and DNA samples. However, concrete programmes have yet to be put in place and there is widespread agreement that leadership and funding needs to come from the EU.

“It involves EU member states and EU border protection systems,” pointed out Klesier. “It needs to be addressed at an EU-wide level and in the external relations of the EU as well.”

What do you think can be done for the families of the missing migrants? Are there any other measures that can prevent the deaths at sea every year? Do let us know your thoughts!

Living at the Border

Have you heard about the Living at the Border project? Click here to find out more about this amazing forced migration focused project.

Living at the Border focuses on :

Documenting the realities of African refugees and migrants, Living at the Border captures everyday life in Italy. Through their personal stories, this multimedia project shows the complexity of their lives as they navigate through the asylum system in Europe. Field research for this project was conducted in Rome, Italy from September to October 2013.

Due to the lack of support, many asylum-seekers and refugees end up living inside abandoned public buildings or on the streets. By examining how makeshift communities are built by refugees despite government shut down of these places, this project explores how they attempt to seek acceptance and forge a sense of belonging in a new environment that is not always what it seems.

While the refugees and migrants interviewed for this project may not share the same story, they all live on the margins of society. They occupy the space between citizens and foreigners.

They are always living at the border.”

Do let us know what you think about this project!

Check out Community Legal Education Ontario’s (CLEO) Refugee Rights in Ontario Publications

CLEO logo


Click on the CLEO logo to take you to the Refugee Right’s in Ontario Page.

This resource includes links to publications on topics as diverse as “Making a Refugee Claim” and information on the “Refugee Protection Hearing.”

Also check out CLEO’s other projects and publication’s  here

Angolans in DRC have mixed feelings on home

Displaced by Angola’s brutal civil war, some ex-refugees now living in DR Congo still don’t want to return.

 and 13 Mar 2014 13:37. Accessed on Al

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo – Seventy-six-year-old Manuel Francis is aware of the irony of his predicament. As an immigration officer working on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola, he was forced to flee Angola in 1999, when the third phase of his country’s civil war broke out. Francis made his way to Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, to escape the violence.

“I lost everything. A decent house, a good salary. My heart aches when I think about what happened,” said Francis, dressed immaculately in a pinstriped shirt and brown trousers in Kinshasa.

More than 150,000 Angolans made their way into the DRC during the course of the civil war, which began shortly after Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Some 450,000 others ended up in South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, the Republic of Congo and Botswana.

The civil war dragged on for 27 years, pitting the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) against each other in a bid to control the country. The conflict soon became another proxy battle in the Cold War, with the US backing the UNITA and the Soviet Union supporting the MPLA. South Africa and Cuba also played major roles.

Angola’s brutal civil war, which was funded in part by the country’s mineral wealth, at one stage involved one in three Angolan children fighting as child soldiers. The war is said to have resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 people, and the displacement of a million people.

Manuel Francis said he lost everything after being forced to flee Angola [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

The humanitarian disaster became one of the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) first emergency efforts to protect refugees outside of Europe since the agency’s formation in 1950.

Refugee status terminated

In 2012, as stability returned to Angola, the government of the DRC – like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa with sizable Angolan refugee populations – terminated the refugee status of Angolan refugees. The move was part of a plan to persuade the refugees to return home. For those ex-refugees who wanted to stay, the DRC government said it would make residency permits available.

Around 23,000 Angolans returned through the UNHCR-mediated repatriation programme in 2012. By January 2013, another 22,000 others said they were also prepared to return.

The UNHCR said the third wave of repatriations of Angolan refugees, due to start in mid-2014, is significant because it signals a possible conclusion to one of the continent’s oldest stories of displacement.

But another 47,815 Angolan refugees still live in the DRC, and have signalled their desire to remain. Maria Bueto Laudino, in her late 50s, said her husband was killed in an attack on her house in the country’s capital, Luanda, some 32 years ago. Laudino had to walk for three weeks, with four of her children and two orphans under her care, before she reached the DRC. “I saw beheaded bodies lying on the road along the way,” she said, with tears welling up in her eyes. “Never will these two legs ever return to Angola.”

Maria Laudino said she will never return to Angola                [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Others said they are not confident it is safe for them to return. Francis claims his political history would get him killed if he stepped back into Angola. He is not the only one to speak of “insecurity” back home. Seventy-six-year-old Mendoza Alfonso, one of the first Angolan refugees to arrive in the DRC and a former fighter for the FNLA during the civil war, said returning to Angola was only an option once Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the country’s president since 1979, either steps down or dies.

Furthermore, ex-refugees said those who returned to Angola through the repatriation programme were finding re-integration harder than expected. Some even returned to the DRC after discovering little had been done by Angolan authorities to prepare for their arrival.

Carlos Cainda, president of the Angolan ex-refugee committee in Kinshasa, a loose body representing the community in discussions with the UNHCR and the government, told Al Jazeera many ex-refugees were enthusiastic about returning home, but need assurance that “reintegration was going to work”. Cainda said people would “pack up and go immediately” if they were sure they wouldn’t be forced to find refuge in the DRC again.

Tough times in Kinshasa

The hesitancy to return had little to do with a reluctance to leave Kinshasa, said Dieudonne Yenga, a coordinator with Erukin, an NGO working with urban refugees in the city. Kinshasa is a harsh city, one of the poorer capitals on the continent. Services like electricity, running water and medical care are unreliable, even non-existent in many areas. The lack of infrastructure, development and administrative services in the city mean that civil servants often go unpaid – fuelling a culture of bribery, corruption and criminal impunity.

“People don’t struggle here as they would in a conflict zone,” said Yenga. “The conflict in Kinshasa is an economic one.”

Some Angolan refugees have been here so long that they have integrated into communities between the border region of Ba Congo and Kinshasa. Theresa Nsimba, in her fifties, has been in the DRC for such a long time, she can’t remember when she arrived. Her son has to remind her that it has been 15 years.

It’s no surprise to the authorities, then, that so many Angolan refugees want to stay. Yenga said integration for Angolan refugees was not difficult, because they both speak Lingala and share the same culture as those living in the Kinshasa area. The cultural symmetry across borders is not unique: Refugees from the Central African Republic streaming into the DRC’s Equateur province, and Rwandan refugees who arrived in the DRC’s North Kivu province after the 1994 genocide, share ethnic and linguistic similarities with their host communities.

But the uncertainty over whether to stay or return has split the refugee community. Antione Makiese, 28, works occasional jobs as a mechanic. He is grateful to the DRC for providing him a sanctuary from the war, but now believes it is time to go back home. He plans to take his family to Angola as soon as the repatriation process is restarted. “It’s better to suffer in the country of your own origin than to be suffering in a foreign place,” he said.

Ngadivua Makiese (right) refuses to leave Kinshasa               [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Makiese is married to a Congolese woman, and it’s unclear whether she will be able to make the journey with the family. Makiese’s younger brother, Ngadivua, 24, who has lived here since his teenage years, refuses to leave Kinshasa. This is his home now. But the decision threatens to split the family up once more, after they were forced to leave other family members behind in Angola back in 2001.

Angola’s economy is booming, but with high unemployment and continued poverty, refugees are unsure whether the move back would be an improvement over their current quality of life. Another refugee, living in ramshackle conditions with five children, and diagnosed with HIV, said she was receiving antiretroviral drugs in Kinshasa. She voiced concern over the availability of treatment in Angola, and decided to stay as a result.

The Makiese household, in the heart of Kinshasa’s Ngaliema-Ozone district, bears testimony to the squalid conditions of refugee life in Kinshasa. The family lives in a small brick house below street level, fitted with a corrugated iron roof. The alley off Mama Yemo Avenue that leads to the house is an open gutter of rotting trash, rodents and chickens. But this is not even a slum by Kinshasa standards; the living conditions are not out of the ordinary for millions of Congolese residing in the city and beyond.

‘An example for other countries’

Kinshasa’s poverty means that international groups aiding refugees living there must remain sensitive. The head of the country’s National Commission of Refugees, Berthe Zinga, told Al Jazeera that the DRC tries to ensure through its partners that aid benefits the larger Congolese community, and not just refugees.

The UNHCR said that although refugees would be able to return to Angola, the chance to remain in the DRC would also remain open. In a country with 2.4 million of its own people displaced and hundreds of thousands of refugees living within its borders, the DRC has proven to be generous in allowing refugees to remain.

“In many ways, this is an example for other countries who often do not offer residency to former refugees, which is something we encourage,” said Celine Schmitt, the UNHCR’s senior regional external relations officer, in Kinshasa.

Meanwhile, the immigration officer-turned-refugee, Manuel Francis, said he has no intention of applying for a residency permit in Kinshasa, despite his refusal to return to Angola. “I can’t practice politics here; there are too many spies in this city,” he said matter-of-factly.

Francis spoke slowly, thoughtfully, as he announced that the only way out for him would be to be resettled elsewhere, so that he might return to politics and help “liberate” Angola. “In politics, there is no age limit,” said the septuagenarian Francis. “I will do it to save my children.”

Did you know about Angolan Refugees in DRC? How is it that DRC has had an opend door policy for Refugees, even with its own crises, while other countries have not? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Mix of fear and hope for Somali refugees in Kenya looking to return home

By Bosire Boniface in Garissa

March 11, 2014. From SabahiOnline

While some Somalis residing in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex are taking stock of the living conditions back home before their eventual journey back, others are not ready to return and fear what might happen if the camps are closed prematurely.Somali refugees at the Dadaab refugee complex in attend the celebrations to mark World Refugee Day on June 20, 2012. [Abdullahi Mire/AFP]

Somali refugees at the Dadaab refugee complex in attend the celebrations to mark World Refugee Day on June 20, 2012. [Abdullahi Mire/AFP]

To better understand refugees’ mixed sentiment on the repatriation process, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), launched on February 25th a comprehensive survey of Somali refugees living in Dadaab camps.

The Return Intention Survey will be conducted over four months, and the results of the survey will be taken into consideration in the planning process for the voluntary repatriation of refugee families, according to IOM.

“In the next two months, 50 enumerators trained by IOM will be in the field to interview a sample of 7,453 households, representing 27 groups of refugees from nine different regions in Somalia, who arrived in three phases to Dadaab,” IOM said in a statement.

The survey will attempt to gather information a host of data points on the refugees, including how they used to earn a living, what property claims they may have, what forced the families to move from Somalia, current living conditions, skills and occupation, why they may choose to return, and their expectations with regard to access to services, security, employment and housing in Somalia, IOM said.

IOM and UNHCR agreed to carry out the survey to ensure the refugees’ views and concerns are heard and taken into consideration, under the framework of a tripartite agreement signed last November between Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR.

Hesitation and hope

To inform the public about the correct objectives of the survey, the organisations launched a communications campaign that included a press conference in Dadaab, public service announcements on radio and extensive meetings with refugee leaders.

But despite those efforts, the survey has been greeted with little or no enthusiasm, according to Halima Hussein Abdille, 35, a refugee in Dadaab’s Kambioos camp.

“I am certain that most of the refugees are reluctant to return in Somalia,” she told Sabahi. “But I doubt our voice will sway the Kenyan government which appears decided that we refugees should leave Kenya.”

Abdille, who arrived in the camps in 2007 from Bardhere in Gedo region, said she is not ready to return back home “any time soon” and is braced for forceful evictions from the camps.

“Al-Shabaab killed my cousin in January 2014 accusing him of not being cooperative with their demands. They have killed elderly and clerics there [recently]. How can one return to such a place?” she said.

“There have been sustained calls from Kenyan government officials to close the camps,” she said. “In case we are asked to leave the camps, our options will be limited regardless of international laws protecting the refugees.”

Still, Abdille said she knows of at least ten refugee families who left the camp for Somalia during the month of February.

“They left under their own means. Some left with donkey carts carrying their belongings while others left on hired vehicles,” she said.

Adan Hussein Ibrahim, 35, a refugee in Ifo II camp, was more optimistic about his future in Somalia and said he plans to return before the end of March.

“I came to Kenya on November 3, 2010, with my wife and three children,” he told Sabahi. “Since then, I have not been registered. We have been surviving on the goodwill of relatives in the camp who share with us their meagre food rations.”

Ibrahim said dozens of families who arrived in Kenya at the end of 2010 had already left.

He said a group of his relatives have been checking to see if his hometown of Bulo Marer in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region is suitable for resettlement.

“In the long run, my family and I will find our way to Hargeisa. I hope to settle and start business there,” he said, adding that he was inspired to return to his home country by those still in Somalia living and working under volatile situations.

Despite reports of al-Shabaab kidnappings, harassment, extortion, stealing livestock and imposing fines, many of the refugees are keen to return or have returned already, he said.

Beginning the journey home

Dadaab District Officer Bernard ole Kipury said security forces on patrol along the Kenya-Somalia border encounter far more groups of Somalis leaving Kenya than entering.

“On questioning those leaving, they tell the security officers that they are going back home to rebuild their lives,” he told Sabahi. “They are always in groups of not less than ten people including children and mothers.”

During security searches, the refugees are mostly found in possession of personal belongings, bedding and a little food and water for the journey back home, he said.

“Those coming [into Kenya] tell security officers they were in the camps [previously],” Kipury said. “Others say they are visiting their relatives.”

He said security in the camps has improved over the past two months, however, security forces remain on alert “because the lack of activities by al-Shabaab group has previously proved to be a tactic to distract alertness before an attack”.

Kipury said it was difficult to know exactly the number of refugees who have left the camps so far.

But on February 19th, during a press conference with Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto said that between 80,000 and 100,000 refugees had already travelled to Somalia voluntarily, adding that it may take two years to repatriate Somalis from Dadaab.

Raouf Mazou, UNHCR representative in Kenya, said the return of the refugees would be carried out on a voluntary basis only, as per the tripartite agreement signed between Kenya, Somalia and UNHCR, and that the process would take at least 10 years to conclude.

Kenyan Secretary of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government Joseph ole Lenku, however, maintains that it is possible to close the camp under a year.

“What is required in every situation is a will and commitment,” he told Sabahi. “There are organisations and individuals who want to instil the notion that Somalia is not safe for returning refugees. They are instilling fear instead of hope.”

“It will defeat logic if the refugees do not return to areas liberated by Somalia and African Union as soon as today,” he said.

As repatriation becomes more real for Somali refugees in Dadaab, what do you think is the role of the Return Intention Survey? Why do you think there is a lack of enthusiasm for taking part in this survey? Do let us know your thoughts!

Mining-Induced Displacement and Resettlement: Social Problem and Human Rights Issue (A Global Perspective)

Not much has been written on Mining- Induced Displacement, but as the extraction industry grows globally it becomes imperative to examine what this means for those who are made to leave their homes.

Bogumil Terminski has written about this in an article titled ” MINING-INDUCED DISPLACEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT: SOCIAL PROBLEM AND HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE (A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE)” and that can be accessed here  and downloaded here Mining-Induced Displacement– Terminski

The abstract states:

The object of this paper is to present mining-induced displacement and resettlement (MIDR) as a highly diverse global socioeconomic issue occurring in all regions of the world, as a human rights issue, and as a source of challenges to public international law and and institutions providing humanitarian assistance. Development-induced displacement is primarily an socioeconomic issue associated with loss or significant reduction of access to basic resources on which communities depend. Physical abandonment of the existing residence shall therefore secondary to the loss of access to material resources such as land, pastures, forests and clean water as well as intangible resources such as socio-economic ties. More in-depth analysis has been preceded by an introduction which draws attention to the specific nature of MIDR as one of the categories of internal displacement. Mining-induced displacement is currently not a statistically significant category of development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR). Nevertheless, the social costs of exploitation are great, and that is why the topic is worthy of a wider and more profound scientific analysis. The first displacement caused by mining dates back to the late nineteenth century. As pointed out by Walter Fernandes, in India alone, mining has led to the displacement of more than 1,5 million people over the last fifty years (particularly in Jharkhand region). Other sources estimated the scale of mining-caused displacement in India at more than 2,55 million people between 1950 and 1990. Contrary to the opinions of some specialists, the problem of mining-induced displacement and resettlement is a global problem, occurring on all continents. Countries with particularly large-scale MIDR include: India, China, many African countries (e.g. Ghana, Mali, Zimbabwe) and even Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The problem of compulsory resettlement is also a consequence of open pit coal mining in European countries like Germany and Poland. Although mining-induced displacement is a global phenomenon, problems experienced by the displacees in many parts of the world differ greatly. The largest portion of the displacement is caused by open-pit mining (associated with the extraction of gold, copper, iron, lignite, and diamonds).

What are your thoughts on Mining- Induced Displacement? Do let us know!

Knowledge Translation of “Mental Health” issues in Butare, Rwanda

Wesley Oakes, one of the editors of this KM blog, was in Rwanda in mid January to conduct a qualitative research workshop that is intended to help prepare third year social work students at the National University of Rwanda in Butare to conduct a research project on Mental Health issues in their community (ies). This workshop was complementary to the instruction in research methods that the students have already been undergoing as part of their degree program. The main on the ground research component of this project will be conducted by the students early this year.

A key part of this workshop was to engage in the brainstorming and translation of what Mental Health constitutes in many communities in Rwanda, and to discern how community workers can best be equipped to provide mental health services where needed.

Engaging in this process also entailed immediate recognition and honoring of the situated nature of Mental Health, as well as the importance of having the adequate “language” skills and context information when conducting any research. This was a knowledge translation and re-translation exercise indeed! Below are some pictures from the workshop.



On the trail of migrant smugglers

By Kristy Siegfried 

Photo: Mujahid Safodien/IRIN: Migrants climb into a smuggler’s vehicle at the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa


  • Stricter immigration laws boosts demand for smugglers
  • Smugglers provide a service migrants willingly pay for
  • But abuse, extortion increasing with growing demand
  • Prosecutions rare, smuggling low risk and highly profitable

JOHANNESBURG, 7 January 2014 (IRIN) – When the corpses of migrants are discovered in the desert, floating at sea, or in airless container trucks, the official response often includes calls to take action against the smugglers. Following the deaths of over 300 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in October 2013, for example, Italy’s integration minister, Cecile Kyenge, declared, “Behind these tragedies… there are human traffickers who are enriching themselves on the backs of people who are fleeing war and hunger,” and urged increased patrols to target people smugglers.

Statements like Kyenge’s reflect the widely held perception that “human trafficker” and “people smuggler” can be used interchangeably to describe shadowy criminal networks preying on desperate and naïve people. The small number of researchers worldwide who study migrant smuggling say the truth is often less malevolent and more complex.

To begin with, smugglers – unlike traffickers – provide a service that migrants willingly pay for. The definition provided by the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol, which forms part of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, says that service must involve helping someone to gain illegal entry to another country in return for “financial or other material benefit”.

The demand for such services has increased as states around the world have shored up their borders over the last 10 to 15 years, making it more difficult for would-be migrants and asylum seekers to enter countries legally.

In a statement released on International Migrants Day (18 December), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) pointed to the “direct link between tighter border controls and increases in people smuggling”, which it described as a US$35-billion-a-year business.

Noting that at least 2,360 migrants had died trying to cross borders clandestinely in 2013 – the deadliest year on record – IOM suggested that unless the international community takes decisive action to address the causes of irregular migration, “more migrant lives will be lost at the hands of people smugglers and traffickers”.

Smugglers as protectors? 

Gabriella Sanchez, a social and cultural anthropologist who has researched migrant smuggling in a number of countries, disputes the notion that migrants who use smugglers run a greater risk. “Most people who die crossing borders die proceeding on their own,” she told IRIN on the phone from the Border Crossing Observatory, a research centre at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “Most people die because of exposure to the elements, not because of violence.”

 “Most people who die crossing borders die proceeding on their own”

She says migrants typically think of smugglers as “mechanisms of protection”, who can increase their chances of crossing a border successfully. “Of course, there’s going to be a level of risk, but people calculate their risk… Migrants and refugees are not ignorant or gullible.”

The level of risk migrants are exposed to often depends on how much money they can afford to spend. Those who can buy plane tickets, pay for forged visas and passports, and bribes for customs and immigration officers, are much more likely to reach their destination safely. Migrants who use longer land and sea routes, travelling with different smugglers who may or may not be linked to one another – what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) describes as a “pay-as-you-go” package – run the highest risk of being stranded or exposed to abuse.

More abuse by smugglers

Routes from West and East Africa to Europe, and from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East, with their treacherous sea and desert crossings, have become even more dangerous in recent years. Smugglers have increasingly taken to extorting more than the agreed upon sum from migrants, often by means of holding them captive along the way or even at their destination, and forcing them to phone relatives to ask for money under threat of torture. Reports of such abuses, which blur the line between smuggling and trafficking, have emerged from Sudan, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai desert and Libya.

“What’s happening now is unprecedented,” says Yitna Getachew, a regional thematic specialist with IOM’s East and Southern Africa office in Pretoria, South Africa. “Up until recently, you didn’t see abuse of migrants by smugglers. It’s a business and they have reputations to think of.”


Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN:  Migrants form queues to be counted by their smuggler prior to being transported by boat from Djibouti to Yemen

Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) which published a  in June 2013 on migrant smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, speculated that the large numbers of migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia have pushed up demand for smugglers’ services, and also the temptation to extort ever larger sums of money. “In the case of Ethiopians and Eritreans, the sums are so large it’s become irresistible,” he told IRIN.

Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) which published a report in June 2013 on migrant smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, speculated that the large numbers of migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia have pushed up demand for smugglers’ services, and also the temptation to extort ever larger sums of money. “In the case of Ethiopians and Eritreans, the sums are so large it’s become irresistible,” he told IRIN.

Migrants who experience the highest levels of violence are those who travel “without smuggling references”, Sanchez says. “Most people travel with smugglers who are known to them and recommended by others.”

However, on the long “pay-as-you-go” routes, such as the one from Eritrea to Israel or from Somalia to South Africa, migrants generally only know the smugglers who take them on the first leg of their journey. Thereafter, they may travel alone for part of the way or be passed from one smuggler to another through what Horwood describes as “informal chains” or “loose alliances” that differ from the more organized networks typical of human trafficking.

Obstacles to prosecution

The extent to which abuse by smugglers occurs, even on the most notoriously dangerous routes, is unclear. “Most stories you hear are the stories of the people who had a bad experience with a smuggler. You don’t tend to hear the stories of the people who didn’t experience abuse,” said Sanchez, who argued that the majority of migrants do not experience abuse at the hands of smugglers.

Those migrants who do experience abuse rarely report it, particularly if they have reached their destination and are trying to steer clear of the authorities. The lack of formal complaints by migrants has added to the difficulties of prosecuting smugglers, who can be difficult even to identify.

“Unlike trafficking, smuggling isn’t done by professionals, it’s done by people who have other jobs. These aren’t arch-criminals, but people who are making money on the side,” said Khalid Koser, deputy director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, who has done extensive research on migrant smuggling.

“There’s no profile for a smuggler,” agreed Sanchez. “The smugglers I interviewed in Arizona [near the US border with Mexico] were teenagers who guided people through the desert… you have a single mother of three who was housing people overnight and… grandmothers feeding people.” Migrants may also assist by cooking at a safe house, steering a boat or driving a vehicle in return for a lower fee. This sometimes results in their arrest for smuggling.

Migrants criminalized

“The determination of who is a smuggler is quite problematic. We think about smuggling as becoming more organized and structured, but what we’re actually seeing is how the risk is being transferred onto the migrants and refugees,” said Sanchez. “Most of the people who are prosecuted for smuggling are migrants themselves.”

Even countries that are signatories to the Smuggling Protocol often have no specific legislation to target people-smuggling. Samantha Mundeta, a regional legal adviser with UNODC’s Southern Africa office, noted that most countries in her region rely on immigration laws that “tend not to get to the bottom of the crime [smuggling] and the people who perpetuate it”, and which are more often used to criminalize migrants.

“There’s no attempt to go after the smugglers, it’s all about irregular entry by the migrants”

“There’s no attempt to go after the smugglers, it’s all about irregular entry by the migrants,” agreed Getachew of IOM, who says the lack of capacity and resources in local law enforcement authorities has also hampered efforts to investigate smuggling.

UNODC has set up a voluntary reporting system in Asia that allows countries in the region to collect and share data on smuggling trends and networks. In eastern and southern Africa there is no such system, and “weak coordination regionally on these issues”, said Mundeta.

The role of corruption in facilitating almost every stage of a smuggling operation presents another major obstacle. In a paper published recently by UNODC, the authors note that “Migrant smuggling could not occur on the large scale that it so often does without collusion between corrupt officials and criminals.”

Smugglers are often able to bribe their way out of trouble, and the combination of corruption and light penalties for the small number of smugglers who are prosecuted has made it “a very attractive activity” for criminals, commented Horwood.

Allowing mobility

Several researchers IRIN spoke to suggested that the most effective deterrent to smuggling may be fewer border controls, not more. “Countries tend to focus on border security, and that doesn’t seem to work,” said Koser. “The unintended consequence of more restrictive immigration policy is more illegal migration.”

In the West Africa region, where a protocol on freedom of movement allows people living in member states to travel within the region without visas, there is little demand for smugglers. “Smuggling can’t operate without restrictions,” said Horwood.

“We need to look at visas and passports, we don’t need to look at any more criminalization or deterrents,” said Sanchez. “We need to look at mechanisms that are going to facilitate mobility.”

However, the political sensitivities that inform debates about irregular migration around the world make it unlikely that such mechanisms will be introduced in the near future. As long as public sentiment remains anti-immigration, governments will continue to make it more difficult for migrants to enter their countries legally, perpetuating the demand for smugglers.

What do you think about this piece? Are the smugglers to blame?